Co-op vs. Permanent Employment

September 9, 2009 at 4:33 PM
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Co-op vs. Permanent Employment


 Natania Crane NU ’08 and Jim Stellar

Natania graduated a year ago with a BA in Psychology and worked in a Behavioral Neuroscience laboratory down the hall from ours at Northeastern University.  We kept in touch after she graduated and moved to an fMRI lab in California, and after I moved to me new position at CUNY Queens College.  I asked her to compare the experiences on the job vs on co-op.


While a student at Northeastern, I was fortunate to do two co-ops, working in two very different positions.  The first was an administrative assistant in a human resources office, which taught me a very important lesson: I did not want to work for the rest of my life sitting stationary at a desk.  I decided then and there that whatever career I chose to pursue had to make a difference in someone else’s life in some way and also be stimulating and exciting to me.  I found the extreme of this in my second co-op, working as a patient safety associate in the Emergency Room Psychiatric Ward at Boston Medical Center.  I spent the next year (6 months full-time on my co-op and 6 months afterward working per-diem), monitoring and de-escalating adult and pediatric psychiatric patients.  Both of these experiences, in addition to my work in a neuroscience laboratory at Northeastern, were the reason that I was ultimately offered a job as a research assistant in a clinical psychopharmacology laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute last August, where I have been for the last year.  I am now running clinical trials to help find potential medications for people with alcohol problems.  Working in clinical research at Scripps has made my experiences on co-op at Boston Medical Center even more relevant and important.  It is very different to know the definition of the Delirium Tremens than to sit next to a patient, during a 12-hour shift, as they are experiencing them.


What is the biggest contrast between working on coop as a student and working in a job that could go on for years?


I have been given much more responsibility in my current job than either of my co-ops allowed.  In both of my co-ops I was provided with extensive training, and I was supervised daily.  However, in my current position I found the opposite to be true: I was given little instruction or training, and I was expected to hit the ground running with very little supervision.  Six months seemed to be the perfect amount of time for both co-ops because in that time I was able to acquire the knowledge both positions offered and advance as far as the position allowed.  On the other hand, I feel as though I continue to learn and advance in my current position and I see future potential in my position that I never saw in either of my co-ops. For this reason, I have found my current position to be more rewarding and meaningful than either of my two co-ops, which were primarily learning opportunities and offered no room for growth.


In Northeastern University’s strategic plan, it mentions that experiences should be both substantial and authentic.  It seems obvious that a regular job that could go on for years has more of both of those attributes than does a 6-month position (which has more of those characteristics than an unpaid internship and/or shorter experience) and vastly exceeds learning about it in the classroom as you already said.  This seems to me like a progression of trust (in you).  Speaking as a psychologist and looking at you as a subject, is that what drives your learning? Is it about you being given responsibility and being asked to live up to it?


Learning often occurs in one of two ways:  The subject will either given the responsibility of learning information, or she will go out of her way to obtain and learn information on her own.  The outcome of the situation is drastically different.  When she memorizes and recites the information, it may be quickly forgotten because the information carries no meaning to her.  However, information that the subject seeks out because she is passionate about knowing that information, will be retained for long periods of time. A similar choice is laid out at her workplace.  Although the subject, like all workers, must live up to the responsibilities her employer has given her, she must make a decision about her commitment to her work.  The subject will decide whether she will skim along, and just meeting the requirements, or if she will exceed the requirements and take on more responsibility than is asked.  The amount of responsibility the employer allows her to take directly reflects a progression of trust in her and the work she produces.  If the subject is passionate about her work she will most likely gain her employer’s trust and push the limits of her responsibilities.


The reality of both co-ops, and permanent jobs (and the responsibilities that both carry) is that they require a student to play a role in the impact of experiences on their own learning. It engages those same emotional-logic circuits that were featured in the book “Blink” (written about previously) or that were discussed previously in the enhancing effect of a work-abroad period following a study-abroad experience.  This is important in higher education, as it allows students to explore their interests and see if those interests are the passions they want to pursue.  If we want to engage this form of learning, we have to make the experiences of college students real.  The danger is that colleges will not produce experiences that are both substantial and authentic in their experiential education activities.  Therefore, we will not get the full accelerant effect on the classical fact-and-theory learning of the text book and lecture that we have seen to be so successful in so many cases. 

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1 Comment

One Response to “Co-op vs. Permanent Employment”

  1. Mercedes Carota says:

    Hi Natania,
    Thank you for writing this piece. I think it is invaluable to “try out” a job while still in college, but not just any job a “real” job and see if it suits you. Just like you, my first co-op turned out to be a job I did not want to do. However, gaining that knowledge while still in college has proved more valuable than any class either of us could have taken. I am going out on a limb here, but the second part of your definition describing learning: “However, information that the subject seeks out because she is passionate about knowing that information, will be retained for long periods of time”, seems to describe how you are currently in your workplace. You were not given much training and expected to leap into a job. Some people do not respond to this type of “learning” well. But, like you, I think this is the most valuable type of learning. It ensures that you will spend the most time enriching your life (which is most important) and the lives of others in ways that you enjoy, not ways that have been prescribed to you.
    I was also interested in the dichotomy you presented between a full-time, post-undergraduate job, and a co-op. I have often wondered how these two types of learning situations have differed and if they differ across industries, companies, and people. My assumption is yes, that they do. However, nothing can trade co-op experiences. As you have stated they have prepared you, in some ways, and challenged you in others for a job post-undergraduate! Thank you for writing about co-op!


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