Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

The Age of Co-op

18 Feb 2010

I feel co-operative education has finally come of age. Having completed 6 co-op terms myself, I can now almost definitely say that if you're not in a co-op program at your University, you're certainly missing out on something significant. It would be like having pizza without the cheese. Or milk without the fat.

I'm glad the University of Waterloo chose the term "co-op" instead of "internships". People tend to associate internships as being free work or minimum wage. They equate internships with apprenticeships. But that doesn't have to be true. Some co-ops earn pretty close to full-time wages in their last and second-last co-op terms. I certainly did.

The fact is that Waterloo is eons ahead of many other large universities in terms of co-op. But it is also eons behind where it could be. The process isn't nearly as streamlined as it should be. But the administration realizes this, and they're making changes. But not speedily enough. Times are changing quick. Our competition is catching up fast. If we don't hurry up, then we risk becoming the university-equivalent of an IBM.

There's quite a bit I've taken away because of enrolling in a co-op program. The benefits are just too many. So many that it should be made illegal to graduate without the co-op experience. It sometimes baffles me that there still exists universities without co-op, or programs at universities where co-op is optional.

Let's take a whirlwind tour of the various advantages of co-op.

First, co-op allows you to sleep around. You get to try companies of all sorts of sizes and types. You'll get to try out different positions within each company. Each company will give you a unique experience, and if nothing else, will teach you what you're not interested in. You can try out tiny startups like Dropbox that have as little as 3-10 employees, medium-sized companies like Initech that have 100 employees, moderately-sized companies like Google with around 20,000 employees, or huge software behemoths like Microsoft that have over 90,000 employees. The choice is entirely yours to make.

Second, co-op is a huge break from school. Do not underestimate this benefit. I have to admit it. Engineering study terms at Waterloo are kinda hard. The work load is a bit too much. I've done poorly every time I've had back-to-back study terms. And I've had 3 of those so far. The burnout is inevitable. Co-op terms will allow you to explore new cities and take a break from the monotonousness of school. When you come back for a study term, you'll be refreshed and recharged, not tired and exhausted from the set of final exams you wrote 1.5 weeks ago.

Third, co-op pays for your tuition. You don't have to rely on your parents anymore. You don't have to rely on government loans anymore. You'll actually have a bit of money left to travel if you put in the necessary effort to get a well-paying job.

Fourth, co-op lets you master the fine skill of performing well on interviews. Interviews are a key skill that will determine a fairly large part of how your future career looks. So if there's any time to get better at it, it would be in University. For free. If you can handle, without breaking down, a small stuffy room with 3 really egoistic interviewers grilling you second by second and micro-analyzing every little detail about you, you're already well on your way towards success.

Fifth, co-op forces you to learn to manage your time. Interviews will happen during midterms, and you just have to deal with it. If you find a job in the States, you will need to deal with filling out all the paperwork for the internship visa when lab report deadlines are creeping up on you. You will need to find housing during the term when major assignments are due. You will constantly find yourself pressed for time, and if you can deal with all the insane time pressures university has to offer, you'll be well prepared for your future careers.

Sixth, you obtain invaluable life lessons when you do co-op. I'd argue this is the most useful benefit of co-op. You get better at crafting effective resumes and cover letters. You get better at interviews. You get better at finding someone to take over your sublet if you're on a lease. You get better at moving between cities. You learn to adapt to a new city quickly. You get better and quicker at reading maps. You get better at securing housing without being able to see the place in person. You learn to adjust to a new job within days. Not weeks, not months. I mean days. You learn to travel light. You learn to pack better and more efficiently. You pick up the ability to roll with new friends and new colleagues quickly. You learn to pick up company policies and practices quickly. You learn to judge people accurately just by meeting them once when you're trying to decide if you should room with them for 4 months. Sometimes you don't even get to meet them. You learn to manage your expenses and do taxes now that you have income. And the list goes on and on and on and on.

Seventh, you're very likely to obtain a full-time job offer after your last co-op term. You therefore don't have to worry about a future right away. And your starting pay will likely be noticeably higher compared to what's offered by companies you haven't worked at, or compared to students who have had no prior work experience.

But co-op isn't a magic bullet. If you don't take advantage of your work terms, you'll be the one to lose out. If you don't put in the right amount of effort to find the jobs that you want, or if you expect interviews and job offers to land on your lap, good luck! Every term, dozens of Waterloo kids I know struggle preparing for technical interviews, predicting interview questions, practicing interview tactics, researching the company and the interviewer — all while studying for midterms and having a life. And the results are almost always positively correlated with effort.

Seth Godin brings up a really thought-provoking and priceless point on the matter.

I think internships are overrated. Most of the time, the employer thinks he's doing the intern a favor, but he doesn't trust the interns to do any actual thoughtful, intelligent work worth talking about. And to be fair, most of the time the interns are busy hiding, not grabbing responsibility but instead acting like they're in school, avoiding hard work and trying to get an A.

If you start a co-op term and act like a co-op student, you're going to lose out. You won't be treated maturely, you won't be trusted, you won't be thought to be intelligent, and you won't be given enough responsibility to learn anything of value. In your co-op terms, it is imperative that you think and act like a full time. You will speak like a full time, you will provide recommendations to your boss like a full time, you will fill out your time-sheets and weekly status reports like a full time, you will build your network like a full time, and you will hang out with the full times. Very few people in the company in addition to perhaps your boss and your fellow co-op colleagues should know or even suspect that you're only a co-op student. This is the single most effective strategy that will differentiate you from an excellent co-op student to an outstanding one.

If you're ever caught saying or even thinking "what can I do? I'm just a co-op", you've already failed. If you ever act like you're in school, dodging work, avoiding responsibility, you've already failed. If you do just the work that's given to you, you've already failed. If you come in at 9am and leave at 5pm, you've already failed. As my friend Ryan famously said: "Quit, or be exceptional; average is for losers."

And of course, be prepared to work hard. And I don't mean this lightly at all. Co-op terms are no time to slack off! They're not a break from school. Your co-op terms should be so hard, it should seem like school is a break from co-op. The more responsibility you assume at work, the harder your term will be, and the more you will learn. Having several in-demand skills is what employers really value. Even a month of serious hard work will go much beyond the 900 hours of classes and the 400 hours of homework you put in at school.

Isn't it odd that we're willing to spend $300,000 to buy an accredited but ultimately useless academic line on our resume, but we hesitate to do a month of hard work to create a chunk of experience that's priceless?

Think about it.

And when you come back home after a long and tiring day at work, what do you do? Do you watch TV? NO! Do you play video games? NO! Do you engage in fruitless hobbies like gardening, sewing, or knitting? NO! You read. You learn. You practice. You burn the midnight oil. Self-education during co-op terms is as important as the job itself. Some people are learning more from feeds that they're subscribed to within Google Reader than they ever learned in undergrad and graduate school combined. You want to spend all your weekday evenings reading to the point where your eyes hurt. You want to essentially teach yourself a new skill-set each week, one that none of your classmates are likely to ever have.

At Waterloo, most engineers graduate with 6 terms of co-op. That's 2 years of solid, real-world work experience on hand. Compare that to people who are able to graduate with zero real-world work experience. You'll be way ahead of the game, but only if you take my advice as gospel and exploit every single month of co-op to its fullest.

When does co-op not make sense? If you want just a quick degree so you can move on with life, co-op doesn't make sense. Like Steve Pavlina did, if you want to finish your degree in just three semesters so you can start your own company after, co-op simply just adds more drag.

The other situation where co-op may not make sense is if you're steadfast about going to grad school. But the added life experience might still make co-op worth it. And besides, very few people know for sure if they want to go to grad school until the end of their 3rd year or the start of their 4th year. I myself was pretty certain about going to grad school until about 6 months ago.

People at Waterloo who have taken heavy advantage of the co-op program are looking to hit big returns in the future. The machinery co-op equips you with is unparalleled. Next time you're at a company, I urge you to look more closely at the level of execution and performance of fresh undergrads who have been through a co-op program and those who have not. The difference is quite enchanting, to say the least.

It is now 2010. We're entering a new kind of age. An age where doing is about as important as knowing. To that effect, co-operative education has certainly come of age. Co-op is to the modern-day society what apprenticeships were to the medieval and feudal ages.

If you have a choice, don't let the co-op opportunity slip. I guarantee you will regret it.

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