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Internship or Research Project: Which is right for you?

NewsKevin Wong

As a high schooler, especially one planning to continue your education at a four-year college, one of the foremost questions in your mind is no doubt how best to spend your free time. Two major options for those with even the slightest academic bent are internships and research projects. But what’s the difference between research projects and internships for high school students, and how to choose? In this article, we’ll do our best to break it down.

What is an internship, and how do you get one?


An intern is defined as “a student or trainee who works, sometimes without pay, at a trade or occupation in order to gain work experience.” The goal of an internship is for both employee and employer to find out if the other is a good fit for a potential full-time position in the future. Summer internships in particular usually last for around three months but can also be extended if both parties are open to it. This time frame is too short to ramp up an intern to the work that a full-time employee would be doing, so it’s more often dedicated to a side project that is still necessary or helpful. Some internships are also structured as “job shadowing” opportunities for the intern to get a good sense of the in’s and out’s of a particular profession.

The process of applying to an internship is very similar to that of applying to a full-time job. The company will have an “open requisition” on either their website or a job board such as LinkedIn, and applicants will submit their résumé/CV and sometimes fill out a preliminary questionnaire. Successful candidates will then move on to a phone screening and/or video interview, the latter having largely replaced in-person interviews in the post-pandemic era. Networking can play a huge role in these selections, so make the most of your connections! There’s no shame in leveraging friends and family; just remember that at the end of the day, you’re the one who will have to do the work.

Ideally, your time at an internship will teach you the skills that you would need to succeed in that particular career or field, while also allowing you to contribute to the company and impress your manager. However, perhaps the most important benefit of an internship is that it teaches you what it’s like to work in that industry, including necessary “soft skills” such as interacting with coworkers and presenting at meetings. It’s also an opportunity to flesh out your résumé, making future employment that much easier to come by.

This is a path best pursued by: a high schooler who is aiming to work full-time in the future, and perhaps already has an idea of what job they would want to have.

Here are some of the top internships for high school students:
Microsoft High School Internships
Smithsonian Internship
Library of Congress Internship
Johns Hopkins Internship in Brain Sciences
NASA Internship


What is a research project, and how do you start one?

A research project is, by and large, an attempt to answer some sort of question or hypothesis. The subject can range anywhere from gravitational waves to French-African literature and beyond. For high schoolers, research opportunities generally fall into one of two categories: joining a long-running program, usually affiliated with a university, or coming up with a question and conducting individual research. The latter is also often known as “Passion Projects” (see here to learn more).

Selective In-Person Research Programs
Programs that admit students into university labs or research facilities are incredibly selective. The application process differs from program to program, but will usually ask for a transcript, letter of recommendation, and one or more essays regarding motivation and experience. These projects tackle big questions that are predetermined by the PI’s (Principal Investigator) of the lab, and they will want to ensure that anyone joining will help them move incrementally towards a long-term goal.

Here are some of the most renowned in-person academic research opportunities for high schoolers:
Research Science Institute at MIT
Applied Research Innovations in Science and Engineering at NYU
Research in Materials Science at CUNY
Simons Summer Research Program

Individual Research
On the other hand, individual research is by nature open to anyone. The difficulty lies in finding a question that you want to answer and figuring out how to answer it, as well as earning recognition for the work that you’ve put in. If you want the freedom of running your own project along with the guidance of an experienced research lead, there exists a third option, spearheaded by Polygence, that combines the best of both worlds. Polygence pairs you with an individual mentor who helps you design a personalized research project without restricting you to their own work.

A research project can be an extremely rewarding way to solidify and expand on skills that you’ve already been honing in school. You will learn how to follow good research principles, where to go for pertinent questions, and what it’s like to pursue a career in academia.

Even if that may not be your plan for the future, most colleges look for researchers more than industry workers; so it could be in your best interests to get some research experience, either through an established program, or your own individualized project, under your belt regardless.

This is a path best pursued by: a high schooler who believes that they would like to pursue academia, or would like to develop research skills.

Which one should I choose?

The choice between internship and research project ultimately comes down to you as an individual and what your goals are for the future. An internship may be more suitable if you know you want to get work experience in industry, but a research project can give you a boost in a career in academia, as well as in college applications. Both will give you a taste of working full-time in their respective areas, as well as provide opportunities to network and fill out your résumé. We hope this article has been a helpful way to decide between the two, and good luck wherever you apply yourself!