Internships and Co-op Experience

On-the-job experience is essential in helping career planners decide whether or not an occupation or work environment is right for them. If you’re still in school, there are a number of work-integrated learning programs at many educational institutions that will help you gain this experience. Look into these options: you might be surprised how big an impact it can have and how much it will help you figure out if a job is really right for you.


  • Learning through experiential education

  • Internships

  • Co-op experience

Learning through experiential education

Both internship and co-op programs are a form of experiential education (EE), or work-integrated learning. You might also hear EE referred to as:

  • Community-based learning

  • Volunteering

  • Community engagement

  • Community service–based learning

What it all boils down to is this: EE is a form of engaged learning that blends theory and coursework with practical, hands-on experience. All EE programs broaden a student’s academic experience through a variety of job placements and provide valuable on-the-job lessons. You need work experience, and many academic institutions have established a wide variety of EE programs to help you gain that experience before you graduate.


The Canadian Association for Internship Programs defines an internship as “…an extended period of paid work experience, typically of 12 to 16 months duration, that is an integral part of a program of post-secondary study…”

In fact, internships can take many forms, depending on the terms that you, your school and your employer are comfortable with. Following are a few commonalities among most internships:

  • They include back-to-back work terms of 8 to 16 months in length. Work terms are usually completed by engineering, science or business students who have completed their next-to-last year of study.

  • They can be paid or unpaid. In the social sciences or cultural industries, an internship may be part-time and unpaid during the school year and then become full-time work throughout the summer vacation.

  • They offer a way to gain work experience after graduation. These placements may be unpaid, or interns may receive a stipend for their contributions.

To find out what type of internships—or other EE opportunities—your school offers, speak to career centre staff or your professors. The earlier you do this, the better; you don’t want to miss out because you didn’t meet an important deadline. If opportunities are available through your school, take advantage of them even if it means delaying your graduation. Professional experience is invaluable. Tip: Many employers list internship opportunities on their websites. Research the employers you’re interested in working for and explore what they have to offer.

Co-op experience

The Canadian Association for Co-operative Education describes co-op as “…a program which alternates periods of academic study with periods of work experience in appropriate fields of business, industry, government, social services and the professions…”

Unlike internships, where work experience is gained later in a student’s academic career, co-op programs usually alternate between work and study terms within each academic year. At most schools, students wishing to complete a co-op program must register when they apply to the university or college. There are often a limited number of spots available in co-op, so try to look into your options as early as possible.

If you’re interested in participating in a co-op program, find out what your educational institution has to offer. Applying the theoretical knowledge you learn in class to practical work situations can be the best education of all. Co-op programs provide the opportunity to see that what you’re learning behind a desk truly does translate to the real world.