Whether it’s an internship or co-op, students should take advantage of the opportunities available to them during their work term. Recently, @otowncoho wrote a blog post on strategies for those who hire students in government. Being near the end of my own co-op term, I thought I would reflect on advice I would give to students coming into a similar situation.
Before the Term
Might sound like common sense, but students should remember to ask about procedures for the first day and if they need to bring in anything (typically finance/pay or security related information).
Consider Not Taking Classes
I know students want to finish as soon as they can, but I have heard from a lot of students (and hearsay of supervisor comments) that taking one or more classes while on a full-time co-op term can be very stressful. If tired and/or stressed, you might be likely to underperform, be less enthusiastic, or seem less “present”. Although you might do your work well, it might be hard to leave a really good impression on the employer.
At the Beginning
If one isn’t provided, ask your supervisor or a coworker about an orientation guide, which might include student employment policy (including stat pay and hours/overtime), how to set up phone and/or e-mail, use policies, contacting support services (such as IT), facilities, and useful links (like where to eat). I would expect an employer to (have someone) show you around the office and introduce you to coworkers, but if some are absent, remember to introduce yourself when they return.
You may not like paper work, but it is a necessity. Make sure that HR/pay forms, tax forms, etc. are all completed on your first day or as soon as possible. Ask to see if direct deposit is available. Most of the time it’s not a problem, but I have heard too many stories about paycheques being lost or missing, which can be a big problem for students trying to meet rent and what not.
Work Plan / Objectives
Many schools and programs require the work or learning objectives are written and discussed with a supervisor. If not, it’s still a great platform to discuss with your supervisor what you want to get out of your co-op term. Topics you might want to cover:
- Technical skills to acquire/work on
- Interpersonal skills to learn more about/improve on
- Weak Skills/Traits to work on
- Knowledge Areas to learn about
- Career Areas to learn about
- Strategy on how to meet your objectives (applies to you and your supervisor)
- Strengths/Areas where you can contribute
- Communication frequency and style: set a method of to regularly update your supervisor and discuss your progress
Typically, steps to achieve these objectives might be written for each objective or an overall strategy might be determined, depending on how interrelated they are. Objectives should also be specific and measurable in order to measure your progress and completion of your objectives. For example, “Learn more about information management” is a great goal, but very vague. Many advise using the SMART method, and though not all the questions always apply, it helps to turn a vague goal, into something more specific, such as:
Learn more about information management by reading about one methodology and the policies it puts into practice within the first month of the term.
Regardless, I believe the most important part is discussing objectives with a supervisor so that they might accommodate or at least share information and resources that are of interest.
Work Term Project
Many co-op positions (common in government) allow for an individual project to be completed during the term. You might discuss with your supervisor about the possibilities and set a work plan including how much time you can set aside, working this into your objectives. If you know beforehand that you will have this option available, consider thinking of possible projects ahead of time as not all employers will prepare one for you. If you don’t have any ideas, ask your supervisor if there is anything they have been wanting to do, but just haven’t had time to do. Ideally, the project would be something that you are interested in or an area that you want to explore, and contribute to the team or organization.
Want to convince your supervisor of the benefits? Start with these reasons from the student strategies blog post I mentioned earlier.
By having such a project exists, it serves a number of functions:
- Something to Show – It gives the student a finished product to add to their portfolio. It’s an actual accomplishment, rather than simply conducting routine functions on a daily basis.
- Time Management – Depending on your office, sometimes things can get very busy, very fast. It can often be easy to forget about students that you may have working in your office. This project ensures that they always have something to work on.
- Contribution to the Group – In a busy office, sometimes you lose sight of the bigger picture. The capstone project ideally will fulfil some sort of need in your unit that is a “nice-to-have”, and will contribute to your unit in a positive way.
During and Throughout
Building a Portfolio
If you haven’t started already, begin building a portfolio. You might consider school work that you have done as well as work that you do during your co-op term. Depending on what you want to showcase, this might be digital or in a paper format. The work term project if you have one is a great addition. Remember that it’s not just about the products, but the process or methodology in creating the products that you may want to capture. You will also want to discuss with your supervisor how much can be made public and if not, if it can be used for interviews at the least.
Keep Current and Learn
If for whatever reason you have some “free” time, use the time to learn more about the organization or read more on topics related to your work. You might:
- Attend workshops or information sessions at your organization. For example, library students in the National Capital Region (NCR) should make sure to take part in library tours and socials organized by the CLA Government Section.
- Ask coworkers about their sources of information.
- Subscribe to relevant news, blogs, twitter, etc. feeds or mailing lists.
Essentially, keep up to date on the field and organization you’re working in.
Take Part and Get Involved
I wrote about my experiences in this last week, Reflecting on Communities through Collaborative Tools in the Government of Canada. I didn’t join in on communities with networking in mind, but of course it helped. More than anything, I met a lot of great people and had fun doing it.
Find out whether there are any initiatives going on either inside or outside your organization. In large organizations, such as government or universities, there may be interesting interdepartmental initiatives, groups, community of practices, etc. that are not only interesting, but relevant to your work (if perhaps indirectly). If you don’t get work time to participate, find ones that allow you to participate outside of work time. Just one or two can help you meet others, find out what else is happening, and network! Take part in socials too.
Network and Get Bridged
I am sure every student has heard a million times by now that networking is very important. Particularly in more ‘closed’ systems, jobs are rarely externally or publicly posted. People are hired through recommendations, or just good timing. Consider getting business cards to give people (even just your name and contact info with a line or two about yourself), or asking people for theirs. Alternatively, ask if they are on a social media platform like LinkedIn and for their e-mail address to find them.
In particular, the federal government has a student bridging program which expedites hiring of recent graduates who have done a co-op or FSWEP term during the time of their studies. If you do a co-op term in the federal government, find out more about bridging and add yourself to the National Inventory of Bridgeable Students [internal link].
At the End and Afterwards
Again, this may seem like common sense, but I’m surprised to hear how many people don’t think of it. Find a way to thank the people who helped you during your co-op term. This might be as simple as a thank you card addressed to everyone on the team you worked with.
Keep in Touch
When networking, you need to continue to network and keep in touch, especially with your supervisor who will be providing your references and possibly recommendations for positions (again, this applies particularly in more ‘closed’ hiring systems). I will admit myself that I haven’t necessarily been the best at this, but I plan to work on it!
Hopefully this post isn’t too much of a rehash of what others have said, but if it’s been heard before, I think it just reemphasizes how important some of these things are.