The Meaning of "Co-op" and "Internship"
Internships and co-ops have a lot in common. Both allow you to obtain real-world work experience and meet people in your desired occupation or industry. Both may provide actual examples of the concepts and theories you're learning in your college classes. However, the two are distinctly different in terms of commitment and expectations.
What Is a Co-op Job?
A co-op, which is short for cooperative, is an immersive learning opportunity arranged for and designed by both your school and an employer. The purpose of a co-op is to provide you with an opportunity to apply coursework lessons to a real work environment and then to bring that experience back into the classroom, where you can build upon your knowledge.
Co-ops are usually structured to last a couple of semesters or even years. In many programs, you'll alternate between full-time work at your paid co-op job and attending school every other semester. As a result, it may take an additional year to complete your graduation requirements, but you'll do so with extensive work experience.
During your co-op semesters, when you're working instead of attending classes, you'll function just like any other entry-level employee of the organization. You'll be given on-the-job training, and then you'll be expected to perform the normal duties of that role. Ideally, you'll start to see how the theoretical concepts and ideas play out in a real work environment.
Because a co-op is a partnership between the school, the employer, and you, there will be a lot of interaction and assessment going on during your co-op. Your school's co-op program coordinator and your work supervisor will work with you to establish goals, evaluate your performance, and determine your grade for the experience.
What Is an Internship?
Like a co-op job, an internship is an immersive opportunity to develop real work experience in some type of organization, preferably related to your field of study. There are many variations in internships, however. They may take place during the summer or over the course of a semester, be paid or unpaid, be full-time or part-time, and be on-site or remote.
Depending on your school's internship program criteria, you may earn academic credit for the experience, and you'll definitely be able to add it to your resume. Although you may receive some feedback from your employer, you will probably not be graded on your performance.
As an intern, you'll get to see the overall functioning of the organization and how various roles contribute to achieving its goals. In the beginning, you may be given easier tasks, but as you learn and demonstrate your interest in the work, you'll probably be given more challenging assignments. Ideally, an internship will help you develop technical and interpersonal skills.
What Are the Benefits of Internships and Co-ops?
Although internships and co-ops are distinctly different, they share many of the same benefits. Either type of experiential learning activity can contribute to your professional development and help pave the way for your student-to-career transition.
Getting Real Work Experience
Co-op students and interns both get a close-up view of an organization, including how individuals and teams contribute to meeting objectives, as well as how the organization and industry function. However, your personal participation in the organization may differ somewhat depending on which type of job you have.
After some job training, co-op workers are required to perform all of the activities and duties that are common to the job they hold, just like any other employee. In the co-op environment, you'll be expected to speak up in meetings and contribute solutions and innovative ideas. As an intern, you'll also be given specific tasks to complete, but these may be more clerical or administrative in nature, especially in the beginning. As you progress and learn, you may be given greater responsibilities.
Building Your Resume
Internships and co-ops can be powerful additions to your resume when you start interviewing for professional roles after graduation. Both types of work experience demonstrate that you've learned valuable skills, developed professional abilities, and know what's expected in the workplace. If your employer was particularly happy with your work as an intern or co-op participant, you might even be offered a full-time job with the organization.
Establishing a Network
With both co-ops and internships, you'll have the chance to meet professionals in your field who may be able to help you advance in your career. While you're at work, you'll have opportunities to interact with your co-workers and show your enthusiasm for the organization and the industry. You might even consider connecting with some of them through LinkedIn, a social media platform for professionals, so you can maintain these relationships into the future.
Finding a Mentor
Mentors can be invaluable in your educational journey and your career. A mentor can share meaningful work experiences, help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, and provide advice as you finish school and move into the workforce. You may be able to find a trusted mentor through either a co-op job or an internship.
Clarifying Your Career Path
Nothing can help you determine whether you're on the right career path like actually doing the job or working in the industry you have in mind. Genuine work experience may help you decide how you feel about the day-to-day activities involved in the job and may show you if your career choice is personally fulfilling for you. Either type of job may be useful in guiding your next steps, but a co-op may be more revealing than an internship because you'll be more heavily involved in the organization's work.
How to Choose the Right Program For You
You may be wondering if you should seek out an internship experience or cooperative education. If you choose the co-op route, you probably won't have time for an internship, so the following criteria may be helpful in making your decision.