Know Your Options: Co-Op vs. Internship

Dana Guterman
Updated: January 24, 2020

Almost everyone knows about internships. They’re the key to building your real-world skill set, the foundation of your career, and the gateway to a permanent post-grad job.

But while an internship is the standard way for students to get relevant work experience, there are other options out there. For those who want to devote multiple terms to getting on-the-job experience in their chosen field, a co-op can prove invaluable.

What is a co-op?

A co-op, or cooperative education experience, is a hands-on work experience that lasts for multiple terms. Note that some schools and employers use the term “internship” and “co-op” interchangeably, so be sure to do your research and ask questions about the specifics before making any decisions. Generally, students do a co-op at an organization that’s related to their chosen field of study, alternating periods of academic study with periods of full-time work. Most co-ops are 40 hours a week and last for three or four terms. This allows the participant to get at least a full year of relevant work experience before they’ve graduated college.

Think of it this way: An internship is for exploring, while a co-op is for doing. As a co-op, you’ll truly experience what it’s like to work a full-time job. Because you devote so much time to a co-op, most participants don’t take classes at the same time. However, almost all co-ops pay and provide college credit.

What are the benefits of a co-op?

While most internships last for a single term, a co-op lasts for two or more terms, so you’ll get far more experience. Another big co-op benefit: The experience is almost always paid. Since you’re basically working a full-time job, you’ll be compensated accordingly. Additionally, while some schools don’t provide internship credit, any school that allows co-ops tends to provide academic credit.

As a co-op, you won’t have the flexibility of an internship, and you may end up staying in school longer to complete the program and meet your graduation requirements. Still, it will all be worth it when you graduate with a more in-depth understanding of your chosen field, which can help you stand out from the crowd when it comes time to apply to full-time roles.

How do you get a co-op?

The most common way to get a co-op is to attend a college that already has a co-op program. This will ensure that your school can walk you through the process from day one. You can explore available and recognized employers through your school’s program, and then apply in the same way you would for an internship or job. If your school doesn’t have a co-op program in place, you should set up an appointment at your Career Center to discuss your options. If your school agrees to a co-op arrangement, you’ll need to apply to co-ops independently.

Other alternatives to an internship include an apprenticeship, externship, or fellowship. To learn more, read our guides to apprenticeships, externships, and fellowships.