What’s a Co-Op & How Do I Get One?

By: Kirsi

Co-Op: Short for Cooperative Opportunity. An internship is a one semester arrangement to work with an organization. A Co-Op is a multi-semester arrangement to work at an organization often leading to full-time employment upon successful completion. Both opportunities allow students to complete meaningful work, learn more skills related to their major and help push the organization forward.

Venn Diagram of internship and co-op

Diagram of the similarities and differences of an internship and Co-Op.

What Is A Co-Op?

No matter if you get an internship or a Co-Op you will know that you are doing meaningful work that pushes the organization’s efforts forward while expanding your knowledge in your major. The biggest way a Co-Op, differs from an internship is the agreement you make with the organization to work several semesters and the huge commitment the organization is making for you. Co-Ops are available for a number of majors.

I Co-Op with NASA’s Johnson Space Center so I am a little biased when it comes to this Co-Op topic. At NASA Johnson, they expect students to complete three work tours which, at the minimum, include one long semester and two summers before your last year of college. You can stack on as many work tours as you and your organization are comfortable with – causing your four-year graduation plan to be extended. A Co-Op is typically an organization’s pipeline for hiring early career candidates. Your Co-Op experience is like a multi-semester interview where the organization gets to know you and you get to know the organization. Since you are expected to have more than one work tour your projects may be related, leading to a long-term project. Often, Co-Ops are treated like full-timers with health, life, travel, sick leave, annual leave and retirement benefits… well, your hourly pay will be lower than full-timers because you haven’t graduated yet.

screenshot of how a co-op looks on a transcript

Screen shot of a Co-Op experience on a UMD transcript.

I’m going to expand more on the “extending graduation” aspect because that sounds kinda spooky to us folks who are avoiding debt and eager to get out of school. Your engineering department (or whatever department) likely offers a credit for Co-Ops if you work during a fall or spring semester. This holds your place here at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), you can maintain full-time student status (12 credits) thus maintaining financial aid and letting you check that box on the FAFSA. It shows up on your transcript as one credit, like the image above, but shows up at 12 credits for all the Financial Aid Staff. Other colleges may handle your absence due to the Co-Op differently than UMD. Personally, I make money at NASA and spend it on UMD the next semester which prevents me from gaining debt. I flip flop between semesters at UMD and NASA. For example, I was in Texas Fall 2015, at UMD in Spring 2016, in Texas this Summer 2016, and now at UMD.

Kirsi at her co-op at NASA Johnson Space Center

Working on a fluid system for a Co-Op project at NASA Johnson.

How Do I Get One?

So a Co-Op gig sounds pretty sweet huh? Well, excellent ways to score a Co-Op include attending UMD-hosted job and internship fairs and other career fairs hosted by the University of Minnesota. Before the fair do your research on GoldPASS so you know who is going to be there and who to ask about Co-Op opportunities. Some companies only hire upperclassmen Co-Ops but I have seen exceptions in the past for folks with outstanding experience in high school or early college, so I think it is still worth asking and sharing your resume. When you talk with an employer offering Co-Ops at a job fair it would be wise to ask:

  • How does your Co-Op program differ from your internship program?
  • What is the typical journey of a Co-Op?
  • What projects to Co-Ops work on?
  • How can I apply for your Co-Op program, any tips?”

If you want to pursue a company not attending a U of MN system fair do research on LinkedIn, GoldPASS or that perspective company’s website. On the LinkedIn networking site if you simply search “Co-Op,” up will pop pages and pages of Co-Ops! Government Co-Ops have a very specific method of applying on USA Jobs and if you need help with that I have written previous blog posts specifically on that topic. If you want to pursue a company not attending a U of MN system fair and you want to connect with them in person tech conferences and hackathons. Your department may even fund you if you ask nicely.

Get out and get yourself a Co-Op!

Of Possible Interest: 

Read Kirsi’s other posts

Photo & graphic by Kirsi.

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