Recently, I sat down to have a conversation with my cousin, who is midway through her final year of high school. Like I was so long ago (so, so long ago. gah!), she’s been picking through the engineering programs offered at a variety of universities across the country, trying to find the best one for her.
Anybody who’s done the same thing can tell you that it’s extremely overwhelming to comb through those glossy university booklets that each school hands out, trying to read between the lines and figure out how to tell the difference between them all. It seems that every school has “over 35 sports teams!” and “a student club that’s just right for you!”, but are these the kinds of things that make or break an institution? That all depends on the student.
But one thing that isn’t really pushed on students, or explained to them before they enter their first year, is the concept of working co-op education (which is what we call it in Canada) into your degree. Co-op, if you’re unaware, extends your degree, generally by a year, by inserting semesters of 4-month work terms throughout your semesters of coursework.
Obviously, there is a great benefit to this type of education. First of all, having the ability to gain practical, on-the-job experience prior to graduation will give you a leg-up on your job hunt when being compared to other less-experienced graduates (a serious bonus in this economy). But what I found most useful was the ability to work in a variety of fields in order to find what I liked or didn’t like; as a mechanical engineer, I worked in Aerospace, Nuclear Power, Nuclear Research, Cancer Research, and Ergonomics. All before I graduated!
Another great thing about co-ops and internships is that you typically don’t need to have a background in an industry to be hired into it. Employers are hiring you based on demonstrated interest and general competency (which definitely includes GPA, so study hard!), with the knowledge that you’re there to learn and grow, as opposed to post-grad when they are far more concerned with your skills and expertise.
So let’s get this straight: co-op can help you get relevant work experience before you graduate, it provides you with an opportunity to work in a huge variety of industry sectors, and it can help you figure out what the heck it is you want to do with your degree when you graduate? Are you sold yet? Hold on though, because there’s one more thing.
Depending on the degree you’re going to school for, there are potentially endless possibilities for where you can do your work placements. So if you’re having nightmares about your friends traveling and backpacking across South America while you’re stuck at home working for the summer, think again. How about enjoying authentic Japanese food in Tokyo on your lunch breaks? Or spending every weekend in a different European country? You can do that. I did, and it was one of the greatest experiences, both personally and professionally, that I’ve ever had.
Whether you’re currently in school, or thinking about a program for yourself or someone you know, there are some things you need to keep in mind when it comes to co-op programs. Below is a list of questions you need to ask, whether it’s to the dean of the faculty at your school, the co-op manager, or anyone else you can find answers from.
- Does the school program I’m considering permit my applying to and taking time off for internships?
- Are the work placements paid or unpaid terms? (many internships can be unpaid, so if this isn’t something you can work with, you’ll want to know that beforehand!)
- Does the co-op office actively help to find international/inter-provincial work placements?
- How flexible is the program, in terms of doing longer (8 month or 1 year) internships? Is this allowed?
- Can I find my own placements, or am I limited to only the placements found/posted by the co-op program? (If this is the case, you’ll want to make sure that they post jobs in industries and cities you’re interested in)
So now that you’ve got the tools and know-how to make the best of your university education, it’s time to search for an internship! It’s a smart move, and it’ll help you build your skills and networks (and if you’re like me, you’ll only fully realize how useful this is when you start the search for your first degree-related job). Getting to travel, make money, and piece together the puzzle of your post-grad career? Done.