Co-Op Confidential: They're Working Full Time at Major Corporations, Researching Side by Side with Industry Leaders, Earning Up to $25 an Hour, and They're Still Technically College Students. These Are Some of the Advantages of Cooperative Education, but It Comes with Challenges, Too. Here, Students and Faculty Share Some of the Real-Life Ups and Downs of Co-Op

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Co-op attracts two types of students, says Robert Heard, a faculty advisor in the cooperative education program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The first is already excited to work in their chosen field; they look forward to graduating and putting their degree to use.

The second is using co-op to try out an occupation and see if it fits. They have co-op to supplement their course work, to find out what's expected of them in the workplace, and to quell their fears before going out into the real world.

"I try to convince the students to take a very proactive, professional attitude--to convince the company they really are an asset," Heard says. "They're not just another employee to pull samples." If students can do that, they will leave their co-ops with more experience and confidence.

Though advisors like Heard will guide students to jobs that suit them, once they are in a co-op position, they are basically on their own. "I tell the students that they are really in the industry," he says. "They' re already committed."

Companies involved in cooperative education treat students well, Heard says. They are usually put in a supportive team, and sometimes employers even help with living expenses. He also estimates that 20%-25% of his students are offered permanent jobs as a result of their co-op.

But before they apply to jobs or accept offers, Heard recommends students research employers to find a job that truly interests them. "They're planning the internships to get information about the industry," so find the company that fits, he says.


Danielle Ouellette, a 2009 graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, worked for six months as a marketing co-op at MFS Investment Management in Boston. Before that, she held a co-op position at the investment firm T. Rowe Price in Baltimore, Maryland. Her degree, however, is in journalism.

Many students jump around, trying different companies or even different industries to get a feel for what matches their interests and goals. Ouellette's journalism background lent itself to the promotional materials she wrote as a co-op, but she actually tried early childcare before settling into marketing and corporate communications.

"I chose business co-ops because I knew I really didn't want to be a journalist like at The Boston Globe, and because the business co-op paid significantly more," Ouellette says candidly. "It made me realize what I didn't want to do with my life."

Co-op positions are a hybrid of sorts; they're like a step up from the intern position, but just below a salaried employee. Even though co-op positions come with responsibilities you may not find at an internship, students are still not completely on their own. "You constantly have to update other people on your status. You need to get approval," Ouellette says. "There's a lot more checking in."

Ouellette's average day at MFS often included several hour-long meetings, where she took notes. One of her primary responsibilities was making sure that the information was complete and accessible to everyone, including her bosses. So note taking, which might have seemed like a menial task, was actually rather important. Plus, it allowed her to be a fly on the wall. …