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Co-op vs internship: Which is right for you?

co-op vs internship
Engineering and business students prefer co-op experiences; here's why. Source: Khaled Desouki/AFP

Deciding between a co-op vs internship experience requires an understanding of each, as well as how they align with your career goals. As most students know, internships offer a term of working experience before you graduate. Co-op (short for cooperative education), on the other hand, involves engaging with employers in a chosen industry over multiple terms.

When selecting your course, you would have considered its practical component too. Depending on your industry, you could opt for an opportunity that matches your course duration and career requirements. Choosing between co-op vs internship, therefore, depends not just on your goals, but your programme structure and the university’s industry links.

At the same time, Virginia Tech’s Career and Professional Development Department rightfully points out that the terms “co-op” and “internship” may be used differently by various parties. Therefore, it’s best to clarify the offering of the experience in detail; your university’s career services centre is a good place to start.

An internship has its own benefits, such as allowing you to work with a chosen mentor or organisation, or on a certain project. Source: Valerie Macon/AFP

Co-op vs internship: Pros and cons

When comparing co-op vs internship, you should consider three factors: job scope, duration, and salary. An internship could be part-time or full-time, but a co-op experience is typically full-time. The latter is particularly attractive to engineering and business majors.

The main criteria when comparing co-op vs internship? Time, which is directly related to the experience you gain. According to Indeed, “Co-ops usually last for a longer duration with your responsibilities increasing as your education progresses.” This could result in you undertaking a five-year degree, instead of the typical four years.

If you are graduating into a competitive field that demands a high level of technical expertise, however, a co-op experience would be the right choice. You will gain job-relevant skills that place you ahead of your peers. Plus, it sets you on track to your career while guaranteeing an income during the time you are working.

You may take on a co-op position with alternating or parallel schedules. By alternating schedules, you can work for one semester and focus on classes the next. If you prefer to attend classes part-time while working, then a parallel arrangement will work just fine.

Though unpaid internships are no longer the norm, the internship experience is more suited for those exploring their options towards the end of their undergraduate programme. An internship has its own benefits, such as allowing you to work with a chosen mentor or organisation, or on a certain project. It’s shorter, and your roles may be more diverse — all good practice for your first job.