My Cooperative Edge

My Cooperative Edge

Honestly, I came up with this week’s theme (“how’d you get to where you are today”) based on my desire to write about my own experience. Actually, it was in response to Miss Outlier’s post about variation in engineering education. The recently departed Fluxor (miss ya buddy!) and I had previously discussed how my school wasn’t as thorough on all fronts of electrical engineering; however, our curriculum was supplemented by something called a “co-0p”. And in fact it was the reason I went the the school I did in the first place.

So, what’s a co-op? A co-op (or “cooperative education”) is when you take 8-9 months and don’t go to school. Sounds like fun, eh? Just sit around all day and play video games or something? Well, no. Actually, during that time, you’re out in industry working for a company. With a salary and everything. And in most cases, you’re doing actual work for your employer, either on a project or on tasks like any other engineer.

“So what?” you say, “Why does that matter?”

Well, it matters for a couple reasons. First, I had the chance to get out in industry and learn things I never would have been able to learn during my schooling. A reality is that even the best schools aren’t going to be realistic engineering situations, especially in undergrad days. And this takes many forms. Sometimes, you won’t have nearly the amount of equipment you have in the school lab,  so you’ll need to learn to improvise. Other times, you’ll be using stuff at work that is so specialized, there’s zero chance a school would have it. And if they did, you’re probably not allowed to get near it as an undergrad. Even the “design projects” that I did shaded more towards cook book (for the labs) or brainstorming (for some of the projects). In the real-world environment, you begin having to justify costs, dealing with realistic time lines, managing inventory and just about everything else that bridges the gap between the academic world and an industrial environment. And even the realities you have to face as an engineer in a business world.

When I was done with school, I had a good chunk of experience. No, I was not an “experienced engineer”, per se. My two co-ops didn’t really have much to do with each other, though I thoroughly enjoyed both. The first was working on audio circuits and the second was doing digital signal processing work. But that’s the kind of variation a student can experience. When I walked into the interview for my first full time engineering position, I wasn’t talking about school projects or classes or labs I had attended; I was discussing how I solved real world problems, every day on the job. As someone who now interviews new hires and co-ops, having this experience to talk about really helps separate you from the pack.

I began learning things that some engineers don’t learn until they’ve left school and started their careers. The first was the value of networking, though I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at the time. All I thought that I was doing was meeting other students on co-op and working side by side. However, I met one of my best friends and one that helped me get my current job, over 5 years after meeting him. Many of the others I still keep in contact with. Getting a jump on building connections cannot be understated.  Another thing I learned was some of the real world skills that many would think are natural, but really aren’t.  Being a college student and having an on-campus job is a LOT different than getting up and going to work each day. The concept of a self-imposed curfew wasn’t as alien as an idea when I had to work a 9 or 10 hour day the following day. And regardless of my newfound somnambulic education, I still learned the value of a strong pot of coffee in the morning (knowledge I carry with me to this day!).

And finally, the point I’d really like to get at with regards to co-ops: they give you perspective. Perhaps you find a job you really like. More likely, you’ll find out that you don’t particularly like certain jobs. It helps you narrow down the field you might like to be in, without experiencing it only in the academic world. Even better, that same perspective allows you to come back to classes and say, “Oh, THAT’S why I need to know Fourier transforms!” You’ve seen the power of ideas in the real world and you know the important parts to learn to be an effective engineer, all before leaving the confines of a university.

I would highly recommend students out there try to find co-op programs, especially if they’re searching for a university. Like I said before, I had the benefit of a very strong program, with lots of local support from companies. I learned a whole bunch about how to be an engineer and I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience.

What about you? Have you ever done a co-op? Have you done an internship (summer or otherwise) and felt the desire to keep on going a few more months? Let us know in the comments!



I picked my school for the same reason. Instead of the regular four year programs, our engineering degrees take five years. Included are five trimesters of co-ops, which are mandatory.

Switching between learning in school and working in a co-op was great for me. I started getting tired of school, worked for six months, studied for another 6, then worked, etc…

My first co-op let me work on my own product after only three months. I had never had such responsibility until then. I was also able to go further and find co-ops abroad, which is also a great experience. General working practices differ a lot between countries. Now I have experience working in various industries, with different individuals and in different places. I doubt I would have that same experience after a four year college and working full time for a year.

That’s a great point. I was a bit cautious in my younger days and actually did all of my co-ops locally. The advantage was I got to live with my friends, have some coin in my pocket and still have a social group to lean on at the end of the day. I lost out on the richness of living experiences that I’m sure you had, but I felt it was right at that time.

I did 24 months of co-op in undergrad (EE) and there was quite a bit of variety. From running Spice sims, to programming test equipment through GPIB, to board layout, it was all good experience to have. The pay was also much better than a typical summer job and helped me pay my way through school. As you said, one of the most important take-aways from co-ops is perspective. Seeing theory in action makes classes that much more interesting.

Because MSE departments tend to be small, most higher level courses are only offered once a year, meaning any co-op experience during the academic year will delay graduation by a full year due to the pre-requisite requirements. Instead, I did a 10 week summer internship at GiantManufacturingCo in non-destructive testing. If I weren’t so intent on graduate school, I would have stuck around for another year, but I decided I would rather graduate on time.

That being said, I learned a lot, including more about what I could do in industry with a PhD. It also paid rather well, unlike research experiences (or graduate school…). I also found out about the entire field of triobology, which while not my research focus, is something I want to learn more about.

Part the requirements at my school are all engineering majors must complete 4 to 5 co-ops before graduation (4 for BS/MS students, 5 for BS only). A co-op block is considered 3 months or ~400 hours (My college is one of the last remaining schools in the US to keep the quarter system alive).

I loved going out on co-op, not only for the money but also as Chris said, you learn things that are difficult if not impossible to teach in school. From my first co-op alone I learned how to surface mount solder extremely well and the value of good technical writing not just lab reports the TA would probably accept in crayon. The other co-ops I’ve done were all just as valuable as well.

My advice for anyone getting a co-op or internship who needs to find housing is don’t spend the bare minimum on a place to stay, go a notch or two higher. I had the misfortune of renting a place with fleas one time which was awful. Thankfully my landlord refunded me a half months rent and covered the exterminator but for a week I lived out of a van crashing on other interns couches. It’s a good story and funny now but at the time I wasn’t exactly happy…

I didn’t do EE but I went to college. I did so after 4 years of living in the “real world.” I honestly think this was a tremendous experience, even if it wasn’t experience towards what I wanted to do. It really teaches you about the work environment, what its like to have a job schedule instead of a school schedule. Teachers are nothing like Bosses, Teachers are nothing like Customers. I read an article on NFL draft busts today, which kind of fit in with this. The transition between college and work is a big one. It was my experience having been in the work place prior to college, that they really don’t prepare you for the day to day of an actual job. I think these Co-Op programs sound absolutely great, as a way to bridge that gap between the isolation of book learning, and the, just get it done of the work place.

I had one 6 month co-op and a summer job in engineering while getting my BS. Both of them taught me valuable lessons. Half way through my co-op, the company I was working for decided to cut an entire product line series, effectively eliminating the division I was working for. By the end of my term, I had nothing left to do.

My summer internship was writing embedded software for a local company. My gut feeling was that I wouldn’t like writing software all the time, but I thought it would be good experience. By the end of the summer, I was going absolutely beserk – I never wanted to see another line of code again. And yet, the ability to hack together some code to do a small task that I needed right away has come in extremely handy over the years.

The first lesson – keep your head up and look around at how your company and the products you are involved in are doing. This will help prevent some bad events from taking you by surprise.

The second lesson – get as much variation in your experience early on as you can, even if you think you will hate it. You might be pleasantly surprised and find that you like something you thought you would hate. At the very least, you will be broadening your skill set, which will let you work across multiple areas.

I studied in Germany. Here an engineering education without Co-Ops (usually 6 Months ) would have been unthinkable, until the big reforms a few years back.
Courses without Co-Ops are still rare, and some Universities demand that you did at least 6 months in Co-Ops before enrolling as a post-grad.

Personally I only did the minimum requirements. But they were very useful in helping me choose between specializations.

Also there is a big debate ongoing in politics, if some companies are using the underpaid Co-Op students to replace normal jobs.

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