You’ve completed your seeking semester with great results: you’ve had several interviews with different companies, one of which offered you a position, and you’ve accepted it. All celebration aside, now, it’s time to start your work term.
The change from a study semester to a working term is a big one. It doesn’t matter what kind of company you’re working for (and I would know, having done my first co-op term at the large Canada Revenue Agency based in Surrey, and my second at a smaller fintech startup called FISPAN, based in Downtown Vancouver), the change will still be something to get used to.
So, based on my own experience as an SFU Co-op student, I’ve put together a list of things you can do to make this transition smoother. These are five tips I have for the first month of your co-op placement.
1. Take Lots of Notes
When starting a new position, you may face an information overload. Unless you are very familiar with the industry you’re working in and have some sort of experience in a similar position, you will have a lot to learn. Take notes on the things you’re learning – not only will you be able to recall the information faster, but you will have something to refer to if you forget things down the line.
Large companies may have detailed manuals outlining the specifics of your job, which you will be asked to read within your first week; taking notes will help you remember all this information. If you ever need to go back to something later, chances are you will find it faster by looking at your notes rather than flipping through a manual.
On the other hand, smaller companies may not have as many detailed procedures, and you may receive more responsibilities than in a large company (this is what I enjoyed most about working at a startup, you learn so much more because you’re asked to do more). However, this means that the learning curve is much steeper, so documenting what you learn is more crucial. You may even contribute these notes to the company’s written procedures, and if your co-op term is longer than 4 months, your notes could be helpful if you are asked to help train new hires.
The biggest mistake you can make when starting a co-op position is thinking that you’ll be able to remember things purely based on memory. Because you’re learning so much in the first few weeks, chances are you that won’t. Having your notes handy will be helpful in a situation when you really can’t remember something and there are no co-workers whom you can ask for help.
2. Make Friends at Your Workplace
Don’t be shy about introducing yourself on the first day to the people you work with. Yes, they’ve been working there for a while and they already all know each other, which might be intimidating at first. But you will get to know them after a while too, so might as well start sooner rather than later. The more comfortable you are with your co-workers, the easier it will be to approach them with questions later (and you will have a lot of those).
As a co-op student, you’re here to learn, and your co-workers know this. Don’t be scared to ask questions; you will learn more by receiving input from co-workers who see things from a different perspective and who have a different skill set than you.
Find people to chat with at lunch, not just about your work but about other things in general. You may be surprised by what you learn. In my co-op terms, I’ve found that co-workers like sharing their thoughts and experiences; it’s often the conversations had around the lunch table which is not directly about work that have a lasting impact, as you learn things here you might not pick up on the job itself.
Establishing these relationships will be helpful when it comes to approaching others for help, and they may even open the door for new tasks you may not receive otherwise, as your co-workers see that you’re willing to learn. Having people that you’re comfortable working with will make your whole co-op experience a lot more meaningful.
3. Develop Healthy Habits – and Keep Them
Your first week on the job may be exhausting. You will be overloaded with information, you will be meeting a lot of new people, and the commute may be a lot longer than you’re used to. It may take you a whole month before you adjust to your new schedule, and that’s to be expected.
But through all of this, remember to take care of yourself. Yes, as university students we’re used to staying up late, loaded up on coffee to work on an assignment. Or worse, staying up late binge-watching that show on Netflix. You might get away with that during a study term when your class starts at 2 pm the next day and you have time to sleep in, but during a co-op term it will be pretty tough to make it to work at 8 am the next morning.
Intuitively, we know that we’re able to learn and perform better when we’ve had a good night’s rest, eat healthy, stay hydrated, and get enough exercise. To be able to do well in this new co-op position, you have to give yourself your best chance. As I mentioned before, you will have a lot to learn. Doing your best to stay healthy will ensure you have a better chance of learning faster and retaining this information, leading to better performance.
Get enough rest, drink lots of water, go for a walk after work or during your lunch hour, make time to see your friends. You will be glad you did!
4. Get Into a Routine Before Your Work Term Starts
It’s easy to make future plans, before your work term starts, about how you will go to the gym four times a week or of how you will go to sleep early to be able to wake up early. However, once you begin working, it will take time for you to get used to your new schedule. You will probably want to spend your free time after work doing some reading on a concept that you’ve come across on the job that you’ve never seen before, which is understandable.
If you want to be able to take care of yourself, it’s best to develop a routine before your work term starts, so that you are better prepared to do the things that you will want to do. A couple of weeks before the start of your co-op term, begin going to the gym the same way you would once you start working. Start waking up and going to sleep at the same time you would when you begin working – it will be easier for you to follow a new schedule if you’re already used to parts of it. Set time aside every evening for some reading; it doesn’t matter what you read before your work term, but once your work term starts you will have this time as a placeholder that you can use to do the work-related reading.
Once you have these habits started, it will be a lot easier to see them through and continue to do them when you start working. Ultimately, doing this will ensure that you’re able to learn and perform well on the job.
5. Be Willing to Jump Into All the Tasks You’re Given
As a co-op student, it’s easy to think you’re not qualified to do some of the tasks given to you. After all, you still see yourself as “just a student” with limited work experience. However true this maybe, this is not the point.
As I’ve mentioned before, your co-workers (and your manager especially) are aware that you’re a co-op student and that you’re here to learn. You will not learn anything by doing tasks that you already know how to do. Your manager is doing you a favour by giving you a challenging task that you’re probably not qualified for: they’re giving you a chance to learn.
It’s ok to not have all the answers. In fact, you might not have them even by the time your work term ends. Just ask lots of questions and attempt the task at hand. You will learn a lot more by attempting to do something and then asking your manager for feedback. They will generally always be willing to provide input, especially once they’ve seen that you took the initiative to do the work.
It’s better to try something and fail while in a co-op term where you can receive instant feedback. When you jump in and try to do a task you have no idea how to do, you’re learning to take initiative, be resourceful, and solve problems (on top of the other more technical skills you’re getting from doing the task itself). These skills will be most useful down the line in your professional career.
All in all, a co-op term is a great opportunity to learn and to experience what working in the real world is like. If you manage your time properly and develop a good work-life balance, you will find that you may even have more time to do the things you enjoy (hey – your weekends are mostly always free, which is not something that can be said during a study semester when you’re constantly swamped with assignments).
The hardest part of a working term is the first month when you’re still getting past the learning curve and settling in. Don’t beat yourself up if it takes a little bit longer than you expect; keeps trying your best and focus on your learning. That’s why you’re on a co-op term in the first place.