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‘Almost a part-time job’: Students describe participation in on-campus research studies

Researchers discuss benefits, limitations of student samples in studies

Daniel Etienne ’26 estimates that he has made somewhere between $400 and $700 since the start of the fall 2022 semester volunteering as a participant in research studies on campus. He’s been paid entirely in cash.

As a frequent study participant, Julian Ansorge ’24 has taken part in roughly six studies through the University. “It adds up, so it can (be) almost a part time job if you’re really vigilant,” he said, adding that he typically learns about these studies through Today@Brown.

Today@Brown emails and targeted advertisements on social media frequently include calls for student volunteers in research studies, which range from investigations of economic decision making to autism to alcohol consumption. Nearly all studies offer financial compensation in the form of cash or gift cards. 

According to the Research at Brown website, the University “is committed to the conduct of responsible research,” and the Institutional Review Board is tasked with evaluating the ethics of human research affiliated with the University. The IRB has also approved the use of Today@Brown for recruitment, according to the site.


The Herald spoke to four students who described their experience participating in studies on campus, explaining that the opportunities were convenient, well-paid and often interesting.

Student experiences: quick money, learning about research

Students noted that the convenience of participating in studies and the opportunity to make money in a low-commitment way was appealing. “It’s relatively easy to sign up, doesn’t take too much time and the pay is somewhat decent,” Etienne said.

Participants have the choice of participating in longer, higher-paying studies or shorter ones. Addie Kerwin ’24 explained her preference for the former, noting that for one month-long study she participated in, she tracked her alcohol consumption. She was paid $400.

But Ansorge expressed a preference for shorter single-visit studies. He participated in one study where he was asked to complete a series of computer tasks to earn real-world money.

But compensation and convenience are not the only motivating factors for students. “It’s a nice way to make money, but I think at least the psychology ones are always actually interesting to me,” Ansorge said.

According to Lucy Yu ’26, the opportunity to learn more about the types of research the University conducts is another benefit of participating in studies. She appreciated the learning experience of receiving an MRI for the first time and being given a short tour of the facility while participating in one study. “I think that was just as much of an academic experience as it was for pay,” she said.

Researchers discuss student samples

Oriel FeldmanHall, associate professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, studies behavioral economics and relies on student participants, in part due to convenience. “We live in an ecosystem of a university where there’s lots of students around,” she said.

However, FeldmanHall also noted the limitations of these kinds of studies. “One issue with psychological research in general is that our datasets, which are comprised mostly of students at universities … are what are called WEIRD” — or from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies, FeldmanHall said.


For research questions concerned with political behaviors, these biases are important to take into consideration, as a homogenous sample “can be very problematic,” she added.

But the FeldmanHall lab has also observed similarities between the behavior of Brown students and subjects from other demographic groups, specifically in a study testing altruistic behavior.

Students aren’t always just a “convenience sample.” In an email to The Herald, Isaiah Foley, who works in Associate Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences Jennifer Merrill’s lab at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, explained that studies concerned with young adult behaviors such as drinking are specifically well-suited to recruit students on campus. Such studies aim to prevent harm in the same populations they draw from, he added.

For other studies, Brown students make up only a minority of participants. The Rhode Island Consortium for Autism Research and Treatment Adolescent and Young Adult Study, for example, initially drew exclusively from a registry of local adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Later, the study was opened to Brown students in an effort to broaden their research, according to Anthony Spirito, professor of psychiatry and human behavior and one of the principal investigators of RAYS.

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Reflecting on the role of students in research, Spirito explained that students are “helping to advance science research projects” and learning more about themselves in the process. And, he added, they are almost always compensated for their time.

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