Let’s start with a story first. When I was in my second Co-op work term, I worked in a research lab for four months, and the semester after, my buddy from school took over my position. By the time he came back to school and we started working together again, I realized that he was a lot more capable than I was, even though I felt like we were around the same level as before.
This got me reflecting and thinking about what just happened. We worked in the same position, had the same supervisor, and even worked on the same project.
So, what was different between us?
That’s when I realized that I had yet to recognize and overcome the challenge of the student mindset trap.
Assignments and Projects are Within the Scope of the Course
The first trap I want to talk about is how assignments and projects are always within the scope of the course. That’s totally fair; we pay our tuition, the prof teaches us, and obviously, our assignments and projects should be within what we talked about in class. If we ever had a midterm question that contains concepts that we never talked about, we’d all complain to the professor right away.
So why is this not good for work? Well, this makes us rely solely on the training we get, and we won’t be able to think outside the box. What’s a result of that? Every time you get stuck on something, you won’t know where to go.
For me, when I worked at my research lab, there were a lot of things that could not be trained, because it’s research and there’s no answer. So, every time I had something I didn’t know how to do, I would go ask my supervisor for help. Finally, after way too many simple questions, my supervisor told me,
“Hey Bowen, I’m gonna get a coffee stamp card. Every time that you ask me a question that I can answer within three clicks on Google, I get a stamp. After five stamps, you gotta buy me coffee.”
Obviously, he was half-joking, but it did make me realize I became a problem-asker instead of a problem-solver.
At work, we need to learn to research and figure out the best solution ourselves. Use your eagerness to learn and solve problems.
Only Do When Instructed
The second trap is that students are often only doing what is instructed. We’re used to the deadlines for our assignments and projects, and don’t do much outside of that because of our tight schedule.
This kind of habit will limit your potential to learn. I’m not saying don’t do what you’re told but do more than what you are told. Go take initiative and ask how you can improve or do more. Seek feedback and improve your work and your craft. When you work at a big company full of smart people, you can always learn from people, so go and ask.
For me personally, I joined two different side projects at work. I volunteered as a lunch and learn presenter where I got to reflect on my work and practice my presentation skills. Through that experience, I became much more comfortable giving presentations and got to know some other coworkers much closer than I wouldn’t have.
Another project I did was joining a Co-op engagement project, where we designed surveys and analyze what factors help Co-op students feel more engaged and presented them to both students and their managers. It was daunting, but also very satisfying.
Meet the Bare Minimum to Get the Desired Grade
The last mindset trap I want to talk about is that we follow the assignment rubric entirely, for the purpose of getting an A.
If we do that at work, sure, you’ll get your work done. That’s great and all, but you won’t try to go above and beyond what is asked of you. This will also limit your potential to contribute to the team.
Recognize when you are the person working on the project, you will have a perspective that your manager or supervisor won’t get to see at the lower level. You can contribute much more because you have that advantage.
Also, think from the perspective of your manager or whomever you are doing your project for. Think, “how can I make this easier for whoever is using this.”
For example, I worked on a Python script that did a correlation analysis between the measurement and simulation data. The script was working fine, and I was quite happy with it, but then I realized only I can use it because it requires four inputs in the correct order to get the right result. Instead of saying that’s good enough, I decided to make a GUI that allows the user to select the input file. Then the code graphs the two data from the input so they can visualize and select the time range they want for analysis, and finally name their output file.
To sum it up, just because you are at the same Co-op does not mean you will get the same result out of it as others. Your result is dependent on how you put in your effort; take initiative and take full advantage of Co-op to develop your professional career.