Unseen Pros and Cons of Doing Co-op/Internships in University

I didn’t know how to draw a scale so I just made it VS deal


When I say co-op, I’m talking about programs in universities and colleges that support students in finding and working at jobs for usually 2–4 terms of their degree, in addition to the study terms that they already have. I am not talking about working part-time while studying.

The Seen Pros of Co-op

The goal of co-op programs is pretty evident. Schools are often guilty of providing more theoretical knowledge than practical experience, so supplementing courses with industry experience fills this knowledge gap. This is the selling point of the co-op program, and is very much the surface level, seen benefit of pursuing co-op. Another major selling point is that you get paid during your placement, which can help students pay for housing and tuition. The universities also benefit from students getting good internships, because it means that the universities are doing something right. On the surface, this seems very cut and dry; a positive experience for everyone involved. However, in my 4 years at UBC, I’ve had 2 co-op placements (1 3-month term, 1 8-month term), and my opinion of the program has actually fluctuated dramatically. Overall, it has been an excellent experience, but the lows were lower than I imagined and the highs were higher than I imagined too. Let’s get into it.

The Unseen Cons

Firstly, you have to pay for co-op. It’s obvious in hindsight that something like this wouldn’t be free, and it might just be straight up obvious for some of you reading this. There are people at the co-op office scouting job opportunities for students and mentoring us, so naturally, there’s a fee for the students involved. Still, this fee wasn’t mentioned in the information sessions, and co-op was presented as a no-brainer with no downsides. The price isn’t crazy (about 1.5 courses in $$), obviously you still end up with a net profit after your salary, but it felt like the fee was disclosed as late as possible so that people would have a foot in the door already.

Second, you have to find a job, and this takes a lot of time. In some Canadian universities, you’re guaranteed a job (the trade-off being that it might not be your top pick), but for my program, this wasn’t the case and you have to search for one. I knew all this going in, but I didn’t anticipate how much time it would take. Finding a job as a second-year engineering student was especially hard since most jobs desired some industry experience that would be impossible to get elsewhere. Between creating resumes, writing cover letters, and filling out job applications, the job search was pretty much another course’s worth of homework. Some students get jobs right away and this doesn’t apply to them, but other students don’t end up finding a job, and it averages out to being a big time sink for everyone.

Third, you’re sometimes forced to make hard and undesirable decisions. Here’s the situation: company 1 and 2 are companies that you applied and interviewed at. Company 1 is a decent place, but company 2 is one of your top picks and would propel you in your career towards your dream job. Company 1 makes you a job offer that you have to reply to within a few days, and company 2 doesn’t reply with an offer just yet. My co-op program forces us to accept company 1’s offer unless we have an exceptional reason not to (“Why did you apply to them if you didn’t want it?”), and if company 2 later makes an offer, we’re not allowed to renege on company 1’s offer that we already accepted. My friend from another Canadian university had this exact situation happen to him, and he took company 2’s offer anyway in his own best interest, and was verbally disciplined by the co-op office for doing so. The (purported) reason the offices have this policy is because it looks bad on their brand if students flake on these jobs, but to me, it’s an indication that the individual students’ best interests aren’t the focus of the co-op offices. Although you could argue that maintaining the reputation of the co-op program might benefit more students in the long run, I think that not letting students make the best decision for themselves is diametrically opposed to the mission of the co-op office.

Finally, once you have a job, you’ll have some homework to do for co-op, usually a report of some kind. This homework is meant to ensure that you have a record of what you did to make your future job search easier, but I personally think it’s tedious and busy-work. It’s a minor gripe, and I haven’t reaped the benefits yet so I might change my mind on this.

The Unseen Pros

The cons felt pretty damning, but surprisingly, I still have a positive outlook on co-op, and here’s why.

First, the money I’ve earned has allowed me to get into investing earlier in my life. Whereas normally I would have to wait until after I’ve graduated to contribute meaningfully to my TFSA, I was able to make money and contribute as soon as my 2nd year of university. It’s commonly said that “time in the market is more important than timing the market”, i.e. since stocks go up on average over long periods of time, the earlier you get in the better. The income from co-op enables students to get a head start in investing and I’m all for it.

Second, I feel way more confident that I’ll be able to land a job after graduating than if I didn’t do co-op. Before actuall participating in co-op, we had this vague sense that we would gain experience and that would help us get a job, but actually making connections and learning new skills has solidified that vagueness into tangible confidence, and it’s not something I anticipated coming into co-op. I can’t imagine taking 4 years of school and then competing against people who already have industry experience, so it’s almost a prisoner’s dilemna situation where everyone has to do co-op to have a chance.

Finally, the biggest realization for me is that co-op‘s least respected function is as a break from school. Whereas a study term in engineering eats up 90% of my spare time with homework, a 40 hour job has no homework. This extra spare time is not inherently a huge boon, but for me, it’s given me time to finally do exercise consistently, weed out bad habits that I’ve never had time to reflect on, much less correct, and actually have hobbies that aren’t engineering related. I like the muddy bucket analogy that is often used in mindfulness meditation: when I am in school, I feel like a bucket of dirty water that is constantly getting shaken. It’s hard to see into my life directly and pick out the parts I don’t like. It’s only when the bucket is allowed to settle that the water and the dirt can be separated. Another expression, borrowed from gaming is “stunlocked”, which means to be constantly stunned/immobilized by an enemy. I feel as though school has stunlocked me for most of my life, and finally having 8 months in a row away from school has been great for my physical and mental health. It doesn’t hurt that my 2nd co-op also has health benefit that enable to go to the gym for free.

Overall, I would say that co-op has been very good for me, despite my objections to how the program is run. I would make the same decisions I made knowing what I know now. Still, co-op came with its complications and revelations, and I hope that I have laid out some of the considerations that are less often talked about.



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