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What's the Difference Between a Co-op and an Internship?

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 9/19/2022

As you move into the later years of your college career, you'll probably want to start preparing to enter the workforce after graduation. One of the most important steps you can take as an undergraduate student is to gain work experience in the field you're studying. Relevant work experience often takes the form of either a co-op job or an internship, but these two opportunities are very different. Understanding what's involved may help you decide which type of job to pursue.

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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.

Thinking about a career in engineering? Learn more about engineering degrees and online engineering programs.

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.

  • Career goals: If you're still trying to decide which job or industry you'd like to work in, serving one or two internships can be a productive way to learn more about your options. Internships can help shape your career path when it's still flexible. However, due to the higher level of responsibility and involvement, a co-op may be a better choice if you're clear about your career goals and can land a job that will give you real-world experience in your chosen profession.
  • Time commitment: Co-ops typically require far more time. Co-op workers usually work full-time, and co-op jobs may last for several semesters or even a couple of years. Internships, however, are usually full-time for the two or three months of a summer break, or they're part-time during the course of one semester.
  • Payment: Your financial status may also play a part in your decision. Because co-op workers are expected to perform similar job duties as permanent employees, they often receive wages that are comparable to or perhaps a little lower than the norm for the jobs they're performing. On the other hand, only about 60% of internships are paid, and the pay rates may be fairly low.

FAQs About Co-ops and Internships

Where Can I Find Co-Op Jobs?

Before starting a co-op job search, check with your instructors, your department's co-op program coordinator, or the career services center on campus. Your school may have specific guidelines about participating in co-ops, such as a minimum GPA or a minimum number of credits earned. Once you've established your eligibility for the co-op program, use the school's resources, online job sites, and your personal contacts to identify co-op job openings in your field.

Are Co-Op Jobs Paid?

Yes, co-ops can be an excellent way to earn money while you're still in school. Co-op jobs are almost always paid positions, unlike internships, which may or may not be paid. Co-op jobs also tend to offer higher wages than internships, although you may not be paid at the same rate as a permanent, full-time employee.

Are Co-Op Jobs Just for Engineering Students?

No, co-op positions are available to students in many different disciplines. Engineering co-op jobs are common, and business co-op jobs are also popular. However, some schools offer co-op programs for students enrolled in science, technology, marketing, environmental studies, computer science, hospitality, and other degree programs.

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