By: Henry Czajkowski
As you get farther into your degree as a Chemical Engineering or Chemistry major, you will likely be wondering about internships and co-ops and have lots of questions. Questions like “What’s the difference between an internship and a Co-op?”, “When should I be looking?”, “Can I do one as a freshman?” Having gone through all of this before, I hope I could answer some of these questions by sharing my experience.
Internships and Co-ops
Internships and co-ops are similar, in fact, they are terms that are often used synonymously. Both are similar in that they are a way to gain relevant work experience in a particular field to bolster your formal education. However, they do have key differences. Namely, internships can be paid or unpaid, are usually offered over the summer, and are for a shorter period of time than a co-op. Co-ops are different in that they are offered during the fall and spring semesters, are typically paid, and are for a longer period of time relative to internships. Co-ops can start in the summer and go through the fall semester, or they can start in the spring semester and go through the summer. Additionally, the term Co-op is short for cooperative education. The idea behind cooperative education is that by rotating one or more semesters of school with paid full-time work experience, students will be better prepared for the workforce upon graduation. Co-ops and internships are available for freshman through senior levels, but typically junior and senior levels are the focus.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The big advantage to internships is that they can be done over the summer, so you won’t have to take a semester off from school or extend your time in school. However, since internships are for a shorter period of time you might not be able to work on as big of a project or see a whole project through.
An advantage to Co-ops is that since they are for a longer period of time you can work on bigger projects and really become part of a team. While Co-ops will extend your time in school, when graduation comes around you will have relevant work experience that can set you apart from your peers. It will also give you experiences and examples to draw from during future job interviews. Also, not to say that an internship couldn’t, but often times a Co-op can lead into a full-time position upon graduation.
My Experience and Advice for the Future
It has been my experience that landing an internship or co-op can be tough, but it’s not impossible. The key is to be persistent and keep applying to positions. It can be time consuming filling out applications and drafting cover letters, but sooner or later it will pay off. I applied to quite a few positions before I finally got a call back. In the end, that call led to my co-op at Ameren. I worked there from January to August, so I had to take a spring semester off of school, which pushed graduation back a semester for me. At the time, that was a difficult decision to make, but looking back on it now it was definitely worth it. Over 8 months, I learned quite a bit about the pipeline industry and corrosion engineering, I learned how to perform tests and measurements on natural gas assets in the field and had the opportunity to step up and lead a large project. Aside from the relevant experience, skills, and leadership development my co-op experience provided, it also gave me a chance to get a feel for working full time and to make some money to pay for school.
With all of this in mind, my advice would be to do as many co-ops and internships that you can afford to. If the position interests you, go for it. They may be tough to get and extend school, but they give you experience, and perspective, which are valuable and can help you to decide which direction you want to head in when you graduate.