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SFU Co-op Student

Mi Zhou
If you are familiar with the basic concepts and have your own opinion about the solution, it shows that you've taken initiative instead of just following what others say.

There are plenty of factors that can lead to stress in the working environment. As a co-op students, you may have to finish a task within a given time frame or be assigned something that you’ve never done before and are unsure of how to do! 

I worked for OSI Maritime Systems as a mechanical engineering co-op student where I experienced many such high-pressure situations. OSI Maritime is a global leading provider of integrated navigation and tactical solutions for naval and maritime security operations. The company sells products and services to more than 20 navies with over 600 warships and submarines. Because of the nature of the business, the design and manufacturing cycle for each project is quite different, and on several occasions I was suddenly given an unexpectedly large amount of work. I will share with you the strategies I used to overcome my stress in this fast-paced work environment.

Stay Organized

During my time at OSI Maritime, I used the first three months to get an in-depth understanding of the company's work and projects. Soon after, my supervisor and other engineers started giving me complicated design tasks and asking for solutions to problems. In many cases, I had to work on three to four projects at the same time, either in the preliminary design stage, or the product review & problem-solving stages. At OSI Maritime, all the projects are categorized to different priorities, which was the main criteria that I used for ordering tasks. It was very common that the finished work would be sent back with more changes after being reviewed by the lead engineers. Keeping track of the status of each task was an essential part of my role.

With tons of work on your plate, it is really important to stay organized. Writing down all the tasks in a notebook or in an Excel spreadsheet can be very helpful. It is useful to leave some space beside each line for notes, such as keywords, due dates or the amount of time that will be required for each task. Having a plan about what you need to do is a great way to decrease stress because it shows you exactly what needs to be done, and when.

This step helps you stay on track with the responsibilities of your position, and it only takes 5 minutes out of the 8-hour working day. When you come back to work after a weekend, by looking at your notes, you are able to quickly get back into the work you left.

Ask for Help 

Helping to trouble-shoot and fix issues that occur during the design stage or maintenance, is the key to gaining experience for developing strong problem solving skills. There are various methods that you can apply to help solve problems, for example, reading a reference book or searching googling for a solution, but the one that I am going to emphasize here is asking for help from others.

As a co-op student, you spend only four to maybe sixteen months with a company learning about their projects. Your supervisor and colleagues who have been there longer than you, know more about the products histroy. When you are asked to solve a problem, they have probably dealt with a similar issue before and know the most efficient solution. Their advice not only helps you get your task done, but also speeds up the project development process.

An example of this was when I had to do work as a drafter at OSI Maritime. Sometimes I was asked to look at electrical drawings, although my field was mechanical. Instead of starring at the drawings and stressing out over them, I talked to the electrical engineers. It saved lots of my time and allowed me to complete more tasks, and also helped me learn more about the background of the companies products.

Someone who surprised me the most was a Technologist in the Hardware Engineering department. Although he was not an engineer, he had been working for the company for more than 20 years and could answer a ton of my questions. When I asked him a question, we often ended up discussing possible solutions to other potential problems or useful resources that I could use to address the issue. 

But one thing to remember, before you step out and ask a question, always try solving it yourself first. If you are familiar with the basic concepts and have your own opinion about the solution, it shows that you've taken initiative instead of just following what others say.

Be Prepared

Every project in every company has its down time, which means you might have less tasks to complete at work. This is an excellent chance to educate yourself more on the company you’re working for, you could read some reference articles, google a question that confuses you, or check out the company’s existing products.

My supervisor lent me a book, “Machinery’s Handbook” printed in 1973, as a reference for one section of mechanical design. It contains everything about the basics of mechanical design. I found information on numerous components and their properties that I never had a chance to learn about before. A couple of times when I finished my tasks and was waiting for new ones, I would borrow the book from my supervisor, and try to get more useful pieces of information.

Constantly gaining knowledge of your related field is essential for dealing with unpredictable issues. When you know the answer, you feel less stressed and more confident about facing upcoming problems.

Communication is Key

Let’s say you are working on a task for 10 mins, and you realize that it is not possible to finish within the 30 minutes of budgeted time. What would you do? Communicate with the person who assigned you the work! It is reasonable to extend a deadline if you are trying your best. Good communication also give others a better understanding about the difficulty and progress of the task.

In the beginning of my employment with OSI Maritime, I had no idea how long a task would take to complete. There were also some accidents from time to time where I got stuck in a tiny program setting problem and the whole thing was delayed because of that. My suggestion to overcome this obstacle is to give yourself an extra 10~15% of your initial estimated time, in case of a technical or non-technical problem. People will always be happy if you finish work ahead of schedule. If you see any signs of significant delay, you should ask for a deadline extension immediately, so that others are able to make adjustments to the project in advance and won’t push you to take responsibility for the project delay.

Being able to adapt to fast paced work and juggling multiple tasks really stands out to employers. Unfortunately, this comes with lots of pressure to uphold expectations of high performance on the job. There are many ways to counter the stress, such as through staying organized, asking for help, preparing yourself in advance, and communicating with colleagues. All of these strategies helped me reduce my stress, which lead me to perform well in my co-op position.

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Jan 18, 2018

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