Sometimes, a co-op work term is not exactly what you expect it to be; it happens. What is important in this situation is that you put things into perspective and view your work term for what it is: a temporary and valuable experience that will be useful in the long run. Coming from someone who has completed six work terms at different government departments, I can say with absolute certainty that the more challenging work terms are the ones that taught me the most about, not only about the workplace but also about myself as an employee and as a person.
Working in different settings and with various personality types allows you to take in the best and the worst of the workplace. It also teaches you that classic workplace issues (such as the intimidating manager, the power-trip supervisor, and the know-it-all co-worker), exist in every workplace – on some level – and they never go away. So, what better moment is there to confront these realities than during a co-op? Below are the top ten tips for success that I have compiled during my twenty-four months of full-time work experience in the Public Service sector; things I wish I knew before I entered the workforce.
1. Have a positive attitude from the start
Before you start your work term, make a conscious decision that you will make the best of it no matter what. 99.9% of the time, your perception and attitude are everything when it comes to your co-op experience and how much you get out of it
2. Speak up, but also let it go
When a perceived problem arises during your work term, evaluate if the issue that you are facing is truly a problem and, if it really needs to be escalated, pick your battles wisely. Do not take things too personally. From my experience, most people do not realize how they come across until you communicate that something is bothering you. Most people are not out to get you. However, if your supervisor tells you to do something, unless it puts your health and safety in jeopardy, just try your best to do it.
3. Try to put everything into perspective
If you’re not enjoying your work term as much as you thought you would, see the situation for what it is: a temporary work experience that will be valuable to you in the long run. Time goes by fast so make the most of the opportunity that you have been given and that others work so hard to acquire. Also, if there is a particular person at your workplace that you dislike, give them the benefit of the doubt. You never know what someone else, including your supervisor, might be going through.
4. Challenge yourself
An important element to remember when setting out on a work term is that no one is going to ensure that you feel challenged and fulfilled except yourself. During one of my more tedious work terms, I would challenge myself to read and learn as much as I could about the department. I would also go around and talk to co-workers about their positions and what they enjoyed about Public Service. In another one, I would challenge myself to process as many files as I could in a day. Any position can be challenging or tedious; it is all about what you make of it.
5. Propose new projects and come up with innovative solutions
When you start a new position, listen carefully and learn everything you can about it - and then master it. But once you learn the basics, don’t be afraid to be innovative and take the initiative to propose new projects. During one of my work terms, I proposed creating a step-by-step training manual when I wasn’t working on my main research project. During another one, I decided to reorganize the branch’s gift room. The idea is to make your mark and leave something of yourself that will outlive your time there. Always leave a workplace better than it was before you arrived.
6. Never just do the bare minimum
Don’t be THAT person, just don’t. Always be willing to help someone out, have a good attitude, and don’t view a job opportunity as an intro level class that you heard is an easy pass. Any position, even the ones that are perceived as the simplest ones, can be challenging and fulfilling if you put your all into it. Unlike school, there is no such thing as finishing an assignment and being done- there is always something more you can do, so don’t be complacent and waste an opportunity to improve your skills.
7. Your reputation is everything (protect it!)
Know that as soon as you enter the building where the interview takes place until you finish your work term, everything you do is examined and judged. Be respectful and professional with everyone. They do not know anything about you and, unfortunately, people judge by the image you project, rather than what’s on the inside. Get to know yourself and the image that you’re projecting.
8. Respect the person who will be giving you a reference (it’s a small world)
Always keep in mind that your supervisor does not need you-you need them. At the end of the day, they have paid their dues and you have not. You may not like their personality or style, but they got to where they are for a reason; respect it. Never burn bridges- you never know who you will run into in the future.
9. Learn to love and excel at your job – you never know who is watching
Even if you know that the job that you’re doing is not for you in the long run, use it as a way to improve yourself as a professional and as a way to get another one. As menial of a job as you may have, you never know what will come of it and who is taking notice. During one of my work terms, I was asked to apply to another position (one that I wanted!) by the top director of another branch simply because she enjoyed working with me on an assignment and because she thought I had done my job so well.
10. There is always something to learn from everyone
As much as work terms can teach you what to do, they can also teach you what NOT to do! At the end of the day, everyone has something to teach you. Take full advantage of this precious window into the reality of the workplace and of life. The best lessons I have learned during my co-op experiences were about what kind of an employee I did not want to be and how not to communicate with people, but the only way to learn these things is to live them.
Enjoy the co-op ride and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way!
Beyond the Blog
Visit the FASS Co-op Page to learn more information on starting your first co-op.