How to make the most of your co-op experience

Yay! You got the job! Now what? Here are some tips on things I wish I had known before I started co-op and things I’ve learned on the way. For how to get the job, check out last week’s post on tips and tricks on resumes and cover letters.

1. Take Chances

Now this might be a little bit late because you have to do this when you apply, but as per my advice in my last post, apply to everything. And take chances! Sometimes you get an offer in another province, country, industry, or in something you never considered doing before.This is the time to take chances. Co-op terms are 4-8 months, rarely in your life do you get to try something like that with so little consequence. So move to another country or province! It’s easy when you’re a student because you will come back, but when you’re older, you can make these kinds of choices so easily; moreover there are less jobs willing to allow that kind of short-term relocation. Plus, you have the support of your co-op office and even if you absolutely hate it (which I know some people have), I’ve never known anyone to regret it, because they took that chance and learned a lot about themselves and what they want for the future.

2. It’s never too early…

A Director once told me that it’s never too early in your career to start making a name for yourself. Maybe this is your first co-op position or even your first real job……and it’s not exactly your dream career. That’s okay. There’s something to be learned in every job (even if it’s that this industry is not for you). To go back to my first sentence, I once met a Director that told me how she began her career like anyone else, doing the basics, note-taking, meeting minutes etc. Slowly she began to write briefing notes (fancy term for notes for higher up people) and one day when was looking at a higher classification job, one of the Directors that she had not worked with, actually remembered seeing her name on all those briefing notes and really liked them.

The take-away from here is that it’s never too early to start making a name for yourself. Every thing you do, even as an entry level, people notice and you never know who you might run into later down the road, so put 100% into even the small things.

3. Take Notes

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was from an old manager/mentor. During our exit interview, we both went through things that were done really well and things to improve upon (for both me as a employee and her as a manager). I’ve learned over that the years that best managers are ones really receptive to feedback and one of the things I said was that as manager, I appreciated that she really took the time to make sure I was fully integrated and supported throughout the term even though I didn’t see her as much. She replied that as a previous co-op student, she is mindful of that because she knows what its like to go in to a new work environment and said something (along the lines of):

“Kim, you’re in a really unique place right now, so take notes. When you get further down in your career, and become a manager, or whatever, it will be useful to remember what it’s like to be new. After 10 years in a career, it’s easy to forget, but keep a list of all the things you like about your managers and all the things you would change. So when you get higher in your career, you never forget what it’s like as a new employee.”

I keep this list on my Google Docs and add to it now and then.

4. Informational Interview

This one was actually a requirement of my co-op program and of my Planning 10 Course from high school, but it really is helpful. For anyone that’s not familiar of what that is, it’s when you speak with a professional and interview them about how they got there and there advice for anyone entering the profession.

I’ll admit this can be really intimidating because most of the time it’s people you don’t know so it involves a lot of cold-emailing and sometimes you don’t hear back. But it’s good practice. And for the people that you do meet up with, I’ve always had super great experiences. Most professionals are happy to talk to people wanting to get in their field and you’ll soon find out that everyone got to their position a little differently and some have even changed careers. There is no one way to do anything and it’s also a way to make great contacts. And that brings us to the final topic…..

5. Contacts

I hate networking. I’m the first one to say it, I think a lot of it’s pretty fake and not very helpful because I’m a genuine person and I’m not good at pretending to like people that I don’t. With that being said, it is a very important part of co-op and honestly it’s been really really beneficial because I think less of it as “networking” as “finding the super cool people” at an event. And no, these people are not necessarily the people that have the best jobs or make the moments, it’s the people you connect with on a real basis.

Every time I’ve gone to a networking event, it’s usually the same thing, people shake hands, they talk about the same things, and we say we’ll stay in contact but never will. But, and this is a big “but,” sometimes when it works it really really works. I share two stories with you.

The first is when I first moved to Ottawa for my 2nd co-op term and really didn’t have any friends. Okay fine, I had no friends. I was actually on the phone with my brother one night and he said “Kim…are you…crying?” And while not actually crying I was upset as I told him that people here didn’t like me and didn’t think I was funny (and that’s soooo important to me).

One day I got an invitation to a youth networking event for another department and because I obviously had no plans that night, I went. And it was a lot of the typical stuff, I learned a lot from different industry mentors because there was a speed networking portion. Anyways I talked to people here and there (because I really was this shy little introverted duck), but I did end up talking to a girl that had also recently just moved to Ottawa as a part of co-op for her masters. Also from BC, we had a lot in common and was easy to talk to, and then we added each other on all the social media things that millennials need to do and parted to go about the rest of the night which was great. So even though I wasn’t exactly one of the “power networkers,” I was really happy and satisfied to have learned a lot and walked away at least making one new friend.

A couple of weeks later, she messaged me (because she is a power networker) saying that she had got an invitation to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities reception event and invited me and some other friends to go. If you aren’t familiar with the FCM it’s basically a organization of all the Canadian mayors in the country and they all meet annually in Ottawa for the FCM Conference. Of course, I accepted as again, I had no plan. I went and met with a different mayors in Canada and since the invitation was also extended to Members of Parliament, Justin Trudeau also attended. YES, JUSTIN TRUDEAU. We didn’t know he was going to be there, and joked to search the room for him and there he was. For anyone not familiar, he is the current Prime Minister of Canada. I HAD NO CHILL. He is also super nice. So yes, networking paid off, but it was from something organic as a friendship. So once again, thanks G for the invite 🙂

With the Korean Ambassador.

This has happened multiple times (not the Justin Trudeau part) but just meeting people and getting in contact with people from different fields and industries. More than “networks,” to me they’re are just friends that maybe I don’t see all the time, but man are they hella cool and good at what they do. So make contacts and friends, I still think “networking” and passing out a bunch of random cards is a waste of time, but that’s just my experience.

Well that’s it for now. What helpful advice would you wish you’d known or thoughts?