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The Black Hole

Thoughts on doing a co-op in undergrad (from someone who has been there)

BY SONJA B. | DEC 15 2010

In response to Dave’s recent post on formal undergraduate training programs, I felt that it would be worth sharing my thoughts as someone who has just finished 16 months of co-op in academia and industry.  I first started to think about enrolling in a co-op program after talking to an international student advisor, who suggested that I take the opportunity to gain Canadian work experience before graduating.  My parents weren’t thrilled with the prospect of me taking an extra year to complete my degree, ((I think this is a concern shared by many co-op students)) however, in my experience, the unique professional and personal growth opportunities that can arise from a co-op experience are well worth the extra year.

I chose to stay in Vancouver for both my co-op placements, although many students take this opportunity to work in other parts of Canada, or abroad.  My first 8-month placement was working in a molecular biology lab within a hospital-affiliated research institute, and for the last 8 months I worked in a related field, but in an industry setting.  In the next few paragraphs, I will describe some of the pros and cons of enrolling in co-op, from the perspective of a recent graduate.

Advantages to doing co-op

Doing Cool Science!
Honestly, how many times in your life do you get to pick any field under the sun you’d like to work in, in any environment, without the long-term commitment that research usually entails? You also get to reap many benefits including excellent training and intellectual stimulation.

No doubt mentorship is the biggest reason behind my happiness with my first two co-op terms.  During that time, I had the opportunity to interact with people from all rungs of the academic ladder, gained valuable insight on what life is like for people on the tenure-track, and joined a journal club for junior trainees, an experience that has profoundly and positively changed the way I learn.

Fighting burnout
The old adage goes, “a change is as good as a break”, and co-op can be a great way to get a break from classes that stress you out while staying engaged in your field of study, maybe even learning more than you would in a year at university.  It can be a welcome reprieve for many who find the whole undergraduate/pre-medical university experience taxing, because on co-op, nobody cares how you did in organic chemistry or on the MCAT, they care about how well you do your work and what ideas you have to contribute.

Getting your foot in the door
I think this is especially relevant to people interested in careers in industry, where building a solid network of contacts early in your career can go a long way towards getting you employed after you’re finished graduate school (or undergrad for that matter).  I especially noticed this at the company I worked for, where almost all the technicians, as well as a handful of senior scientists and executives, had done co-op terms previously.  I haven’t seen many of these opportunities available to summer students.

Honours Project Preparation
I’ll state the obvious and say that previous experience working in a lab can remove a lot of the juggling-your-own-research-project-stress and multiple classes in your final year, as well as put you in touch with potential supervisors for it!

Medical school!
I’ll stay away from discussing whether having co-op experience on your CV can help you in the admissions process, but I think it can spark an interest in biomedical research that just might stay with you in the event that you do get in.  A few friends are now making residency program choices based on interests that were ignited while they were co-op or summer students.  I know that people in the academy don’t like to think that most of the bright-eyed undergraduates in their labs really have their hearts set on medical school, but it’s a fact of life and I would argue there are huge advantages to showing these aspiring clinicians just how cool science research is – perhaps it would help to think of them as future clinical collaborators rather than just resumé-padders.

Co-op can be a great way for many students to earn enough to pay for school after entrance scholarships expire, although I wouldn’t advise going into science research if that’s your only motivation.

Domestic experience for international students
A point not to be overlooked is the difficulty many international students face finding meaningful post-graduation employment in the current economic clime.  Co-op experience can go a long way here.

A few drawbacks

Lengthy Process
It adds a year to your degree program.  I think this is seen as a drawback especially by people intent on going to grad school.  There is a commonly held view out there that graduate school involves a lot of suffering, and so you should aim to get it over with as quickly as possible.  From my observations, I have inferred that it can be a tremendously fun experience for people who are at the right place at the right time; trying out a few different labs as part of co-op can help you figure out what type of environment would work well for you.

Repetitive jobs, a.k.a. lab monkeying!
I would argue that even extremely repetitive jobs in the right environment can be a valuable learning experience, as long as there are interesting people around who are willing to help you learn and grow beyond the day-to-day routine of your job.  Though it’s important to not forget that some folks are perfectly happy doing these types of tasks in the lab, and really excel in this setting. If you land this sort of experience and find yourself really not enjoying it – take it as a powerful motivator that helps you to clearly define your own career goals, and to make the most of the remainder of your degree- armed with a vivid vision of exactly what you don’t want to be doing after you graduate!

Disconnection from campus life
I think everyone who does co-op should seek out experiences that would otherwise be out of reach – working in a government/hospital lab, in industry, or even in another country!  This can sometimes make it difficult to continue your involvement with extracurricular activities on campus, and was among the biggest challenges I faced while on co-op terms.

Hard to readjust to being in classes again
This can take two forms; some students find that it’s difficult to no longer have evenings free of homework- others also find that material typically taught in a classroom setting is less engaging than it used to be before they realized how research is really done.   My take on this is it never hurts to have a broader perspective on how scientific knowledge is generated, even if it makes some of your classes seem boring in comparison.

As many of you may have detected, my perception of many of the drawbacks of co-op is that they’re not absolute – there are valuable life lessons to be learned even (especially) from experiences that don’t pan out exactly as imagined.  Overall, my take on co-op is that it can be a great way to access unique and exciting opportunities during your undergrad training.  That being said, I’ve also heard rumours of co-op horror stories and would love to hear from readers:

Have you had the opportunity to participate in a co-op program, or to supervise a co-op student?  Has the experience been worth your time?  Tell us in the comments!

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  1. Sarah V / December 16, 2010 at 10:02

    Glad to see a co-op veteran’s comments! I had very positive co-op experiences overall, and I think it’s important when considering undergrad training programs to look at both the trainer and the trainee’s views

  2. Sonja / December 17, 2010 at 02:24

    Hi Sarah,
    Totally agreed – one of the reasons I wanted to write this post is I didn’t have many ways to find out what co-op would really be like (from a student’s perspective) before I decided to enroll in the program. I’m glad to hear your experience was also positive!

  3. SubC / December 20, 2010 at 19:08

    Nice article, Sonja. Glad to know that you had a good experience and thanks for sharing it here.

  4. JWK / October 27, 2011 at 00:18

    Thank you for this post. I was happy to read rather positive comments on some potential negative consequences that I could too face if I were to choose Co-op program at my school, and considering the fact that I am very much like in your shoe(i.e. I am an international student too), this is an excellent excellent post 🙂

  5. Sonja / October 27, 2011 at 14:04

    Yay! I’m glad you found the post informative. If you do decide to enroll in co-op, I hope you have a blast!

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