Looking for a way to earn fast money and help your fellow man — or woman — at the same time? Sign up for a university research project and get paid to talk to your classmates, chew gum, play computer games and lots of other activities that were verboten in your classroom days.

You’re never too old for this student gig: Researchers in nutrition, psychology, marketing and other fields need people of all ages.

The UCLA Anderson Behavioral Lab, for example, conducts online and in-person questionnaires about decision-making, consumer behavior and social issues and pays $10 to $20 per hour in cash, gift certificates or through PayPal.

At Harvard Business School’s Computer Lab for Experimental Research, locals can register online for lab studies that usually last one to two hours and pay $15 to $40. Or they can take a 15-minute online study, usually for a $5 electronic gift certificate.

You won’t get rich

Compensation for participating in academic research is usually under $50, in the form of cash or a gift card, for online surveys, interviews, group discussions and performing simple tasks. The big bucks — hundreds or thousands of dollars — are paid for projects that last months or years, and may require eating a special diet, checking in daily for medical tests or even staying overnight at a university facility.

But you do get the satisfaction of knowing you’re contributing to research that benefits others, says Kate Kelley, senior off-campus research coordinator for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Behavioral Lab. “You get that psychic reward, too,” she says.

How to enroll

Finding studies that need people isn’t difficult. “Almost all midsize to large universities have an active research program,” says Marjorie Speers, president and CEO of the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs. Some online universities also do research, but most of them focus on teaching.

The easiest way to find projects is by surfing the Web sites of local universities. Use search terms such as “research participants needed” or “paid study participants” to find upcoming project listings or information about joining a participant pool. If you come up empty-handed, try contacting the university’s institutional review board, or IRB, which oversees research using human subjects. Or, try the academic department that studies topics in which you’re interested.

The nonmedical areas where you’re most likely to find research projects using human subjects include psychology, sociology, economics, political science, nutrition and business.

Craigslist regularly runs ads seeking people for paid studies. Look in the Jobs section under “ETC” or in the Community section under “Volunteers.”

Local newspapers may run advertisements for paying academic studies in the classifieds and other sections such as business or lifestyle.

You can also keep an eye out around town. Researchers often post fliers in places where their potential subjects are likely to see them, such as on campus, in public libraries and community centers or on merchants’ bulletin boards.

If you’re concerned about an ad’s legitimacy, contact the school directly, says Speers. “If a university is conducting research, there’s always going to be a live human being that the potential subject can speak with,” she says.

What to ask

You’ll usually be required to show a picture ID and sign a consent form before participating, because universities strictly regulate research involving human subjects. The researcher will explain what the study involves and what your rights are.

Ask these key questions before signing on the dotted line:

  • What is the purpose of the study?
  • Was this study approved by an institutional review board? (A “no” isn’t necessarily a red flag; certain types of research studies that involve no more than minimal risk are exempt from IRB approval.)
  • What will I be asked to do?
  • How will my privacy be protected?
  • What happens to the information I’ve provided if I withdraw from the study before it’s done?

Landing more money

If you have the time and inclination to commit to a longer study, you’ll have more options for higher pay and other forms of compensation.

At Washington State University, nutrition study participants could pocket $100 for eating a daily serving of purple, red or yellow potatoes for six weeks. The research will help determine whether brightly colored potatoes have higher levels of antioxidants than white potatoes, says food science professor Boon Chew.

Amy Mayer, a writer in Greenfield, Mass., has lent the University of Massachusetts Amherst an arm and a leg over the years for kinesiology department research projects. She received several hundred dollars, for example, for completing a two-month study with weekly lab visits to perform arm exercises and receive an MRI.

“There were student trainers working with each of us, and a student trainer also developed a personalized workout for me,” says Mayer.

In fact, the department’s Muscle Physiology Lab has even hosted an open house to honor the more than 100 local residents — from 18 to 80 years old — who participated in its research.

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