As I come to the close of my work as the Faculty Fellow for Internships in Elon’s College of Arts and Sciences, I am transitioning into a role in our Undergraduate Research Program. In part due to fortuitous timing in the literature and in part due to my internship lens spilling over into my new role, I have noticed a tremendous amount overlap between internship and research that we don’t often discuss.

Let’s start with why internship and research are typically considered to be totally different enterprises. The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) defines undergraduate research as, “A mentored investigation or creative inquiry conducted by undergraduates that seeks to make a scholarly or artistic contribution to knowledge” (CUR n.d.)  In their handbook on work-integrated learning (WIL; inclusive of internship-type experiences), Zegwaard and colleagues’ define WIL as, “an educational approach involving three parties – the student, educational institution, and an external stakeholder – consisting of authentic work-focused experiences as an intentional component of the curriculum. Students learn through active engagement in purposeful work tasks, which enable the integration of theory with meaningful practice” (Zegwaard et al. 2023, p. 38). At the surface and based in many of our own experiences, it is easy to see why we consider these practices so differently. Research is often conducted on campus between one mentor and one student, while internship sends the student into the “real world” with support from an academic mentor as well as a site supervisor. Internship is focused specifically on work experiences that promote career development in additional to academic development, while research seeks to create knowledge for the student as well as for the field and is often seen as preparing the student for graduate study.

Two moments this year helped me to see past the differences and into the similarities. As a part of my work on our three-year seminar on WIL, I have joined a group who is examining faculty engagement in WIL. Our team conducted interviews with many faculty across campuses and countries discussing why they were or were not engaged with internships and similar experiences. Some faculty said that they did not work with students in internships because research was the dominant activity in their field and was either more respected or more valuable for future applications. However, as they discussed why their students did research instead of internship, many of them mentioned how students are learning valuable practical skills… in an applied setting…working with a mentor who was helping them to prepare for the next stage of their career… you see where I am going. It seemed to me that in some cases research really was, in its own way, an internship, just by a different name. Although research on campus may still differ from an internship in terms of set up, some participants even discussed students doing summer research at an off-campus site with a research mentor who was teaching them specific techniques. Some faculty who were heavier into internships also explicitly discussed having their students do research projects, either independently or in collaboration with their site. So it began to seem to me that these lines were blurrier than I had expected. Certainly you can distinguish them at the definitional level, but practically there is significant overlap.

Also this year, the Council on Undergraduate Research began to promote the idea of undergraduate research as career readiness (Mekolichick 2023). CUR proposes that we frame student gains in research from the perspective of competencies developed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which are the bread and butter standards in the internship world. I was delighted for my work to be in the middle of this venn diagram, and in starting my work in our research office I am helping us to bring this framework to Elon. The NACE competencies (n.d.) are included below:

  • Career & Self-Development
  • Communication
  • Critical Thinking
  • Equity & Inclusion
  • Leadership
  • Professionalism
  • Teamwork
  • Technology

As you can see, these are skills that cut across high-impact practices and are relevant for students in many types of experiences.

As we move forward, I believe it will be to our benefit to help students see the overlap among their experiences in addition to the distinguishing qualities, and to encourage them to think about their experiences in terms of their growth and development on the whole rather than as a line on their resume. I encourage you to check out the FIRE2 Toolkit created by CEL’s own Jessie Moore and colleagues as a way to think about how to best discuss cross-cutting gains from high-impact practices with students in meaningful ways:


Council on Undergraduate Research. n.d. “What Is CUR’s Definition of Undergraduate Research?” n.d.

Mekolichick, Jeanne. 2023. “Recognizing Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, & Creative Inquiry as a Career-Readiness Tool.” March 2023.

National Association for Colleges and Employers. n.d. “Competencies for a Career-Ready Workforce” n.d.

Zegwaard, Karsten, Judene Pretti, Anna Rowe, and Sonya Ferns. 2023. “Defining work-integrated learning.” In The Routledge international handbook of work-integrated learning edited by Karsten Zegwaard and Judene Pretti, 29-48. Routledge.

About the Author

CJ Eubanks Fleming is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Elon University, where she serves the Associate Director of Undergraduate Research. She previously served as Faculty Fellow for Internships in the College of Arts and Sciences. In this role she evaluated department- and university-level data regarding internship outcomes, shares internship best practices with faculty, and serves as a liaison between faculty/ students and the university’s career center. She also serves as a seminar leader for the 2022-2024 research seminar on Work-Integrated Learning.

How to Cite this Post

Fleming, CJ. 2024. “Internship as Research and Research as Career Readiness: Blurring the Lines.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. June 26, 2024.