What is the difference between a co-op and an internship?
When it comes to co-ops vs. internships, both are great options.
Both will allow you to get real-life work experience, network with professionals in your field, and increase your attractiveness to future employers.
Many companies use the terms co-op and intern interchangeably. Always look at the job description to see the responsibilities and timeline of the role. However, true co-ops and internships differ in many ways.
7 major differences between co-ops and internships:
- Length of Time
- Reason for Hire
- Expectations and Level of Responsibility
- Levels of Stress
- Social Aspects
- The Financial Aspects
1. Length of Time
Internships typically last 10-12 weeks and occur over the summer.
Co-ops typically last 7-8 months, including the summer. Companies will work with you and your college schedule to figure out your start and end date. As an example, for a typical college that has a fall, spring, and summer semester, your co-op would either be a Spring/summer co-op or a summer/fall co-op, where your co-op either ends right before the holidays or begins right after.
*Note: If deciding between a spring/summer co-op or a summer/fall co-op, chose the spring/summer co-op. Companies usually do interviews for full-time positions in the fall right after the summer internships end. It’s better to be in a position where you’re interviewing with 8 months at the company rather than 3.
Internships are typically more competitive to get. However, there are typically way more intern spots than co-op spots, and not all companies that offer internships offer co-ops. It’s more common to want to do internships because they rarely cause your graduation date to be pushed back.
Co-ops are typically less competitive to get. This is because fewer people are willing to sacrifice a fall or spring semester. However, if you can, you should. The benefits of a co-op experience far outweigh the benefits of graduating on time. You may also be able to take a class or two online during your co-op to either graduate on time or lighten your course load once you return.
3. Reason for Hire
It is important to note that a quality company will require the teams applying for an intern or co-op to submit a form detailing the projects they will have the student working on. This prevents the team from either being unprepared for your arrival or having you work on meaningless things.
Whether you do an internship or co-op you should expect the opportunity to complete one or more meaningful projects. That being said, the reason a team typically hires an intern or co-op varies.
Inters are typically hired for one of two reasons:
- The first reason is that the team has a specific project they need the intern to work on. This is usually something important, but not important enough for one of their full-time employees to be working on. Something that isn’t priority number one but that the team will be grateful you did. When I completed my internship task, a lot of the upper management was impressed because while what I did wasn’t exactly rocket science, it was a project that they had been trying to get done for years but just never had the bandwidth.
- The second reason is that one of the team’s younger engineers wants to try their hand at management. Having an intern report to you is often used as a trial run to see how the employee would do managing other people. This is nice because in my experience, it’s easier to be honest with your manager when they are closer to your age, and they are usually significantly easier to get a hold of regularly.
Teams usually hire co-ops for one of two reasons:
- The first reason is that the team is going into a busy period of time and will need an extra pair of hands. This is good because you essentially become a part of the team and are treated as such.
- The second reason is the team just always has co-ops. Some teams like to keep co-ops constantly on the team. This is usually because they have daily tasks that are beneath the responsibilities of a full-time engineer but would be a great experience for an intern or co-op. For example, a team that is testing devices may need a co-op to set up their tests every day. This is a great opportunity to work hands-on with the devices and learn the testing procedures, but would be mindless for a full-time employee. These daily tasks are often paired with personal, more long-term projects.
4. Expectations and Level of Responsibility
As an intern, you can expect a lower level of responsibility. You’ll typically be given a project or two to complete by the end of the summer and it’s up to you to complete them with the help of your manager as necessary. Another expected role of the intern is for them to get to know the area they are working in. For example, if you are working in manufacturing, they want you to take time to walk around the floor, get to know the manufacturing process, and talk to the operators. Part of the internship experience is learning about the company.
As a co-op, your experience will probably be very similar to the above description for a few months. However, as you get further into your co-op, your independence and level of responsibility should increase. With a good co-op, you should complete multiple projects, each increasing in difficulty and decreasing in manager intervention. By the end, you’ll be picking up tasks that anyone on the team could do.
5. Levels of Stress
Internships and co-ops can both be stressful for different reasons.
The primary stress factor of internships is the time frame. People say it takes 3 months to get comfortable at a new job, so it can be stressful when that is the entire length of your job! Being expected to complete your projects, network, get to know your company, and go to all the HR events in only 10-12 weeks is a lot and often feels rushed.
With a co-op, you get the benefit of time. By the time an internship would be over, you’ll finally be starting to feel like you know what’s going on. The primary stress factor of a co-op is the level of responsibility you’ll be held to. By the end of the 8 months, you’ll essentially be treated as an entry-level engineer.
6. Social Aspects
Internships are more fun. It’s like summer camp, but you get paid to attend, seriously. My summer internship was full of after-work hikes, breweries, and bachelorette nights. Weekend trips were going on almost every weekend. There were also over 100 interns to hang out with and get to know. It was awesome. Additionally, the company usually arranges several intern events throughout the summer.
Co-ops are way more chill. Sure, you’ll be there over the summer too, so you’ll still get to experience the fun of the internship but the dynamic of your co-op when the interns are there vs. when they are not will be drastically different. While there might be 100+ summer interns, even the largest companies often only have 10-15 co-ops at most. This greatly diminished your pool of people to potentially get along with. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you will get a more realistic “9-5 feel”.
Another social aspect to consider is that when you do eventually return to college, you’ll be a semester behind your peers. You might no longer be in the same classes as your friends and may have to watch them all graduate before you. This can be hard to do.
7. The Financial Aspects
Interns and Co-ops usually get the same base pay and benefits. For engineering students, this usually means a $20+ an hour salary and either free or subsidized housing. The amount you will likely save is very different though.
With more fun comes more expenses. During my internships, I spent a lot of money on experiences. I don’t regret any of it, but I didn’t save as much money.
During your co-op, you’ll be able to save a lot more money. The 4-5 extra months of pay make a difference. This can be an added tens of thousands of dollars.
In conclusion, both internships and co-ops are great ways to get valuable engineering experience. Summer internships are great if you want to try a field for a short amount of time, make tons of friends, and make the most of your summer. Co-ops are good if you want in-depth exposure to a field, more responsibility, and are willing to sacrifice a semester. Both paths are great options and will ultimately help you secure a job in engineering once you graduate!