One of the unique opportunities offered to college students is the ability to test out a career while still in school. Internships and co-operative education (co-op) work are both available to college students. Typically, they are targeted toward students who are looking to go into industry but can benefit students on either the graduate school track or the career in industry track. Both industry and research facilities see the advantage to a student who has solved real-world problems.

For engineering students, an internship or co-op is a chance to be paired with a mentor and complete a small but important project. Sometimes the internship experience is in the form of research and development, where an idea has been floating around for a little while, but nobody has had time to develop or test the idea. Other times, the experience involves optimizing a process; being given a working process and figuring out a way to make it more efficient, safer or less costly.

Hands-on experience while attending college is a great way to feel out your chosen path. Source: NASA/Kim ShiflettHands-on experience while attending college is a great way to feel out your chosen path. Source: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Internships vs. co-ops

Internships can occur at any time during the year, but traditional internships are performed over the summer between semesters. This way, the intern can work on a small project with a mentor in-depth. Theoretically, the student will work 40 hours a week with no other real obligations, meaning they can dedicate their time to developing a good, tested solution.

Co-ops are similar to internships but often involve a longer-term project. This means that the student will either work on their project during the school year (if the facility is located near the school) or may require the student to “miss” a semester of school. In this case, the student would likely spend a semester plus a summer at the facility. Depending on the situation, the student may receive credit for the co-op, or may be allowed to perform the project remotely or take the courses remotely so that the student is not “behind”.

Depending on the curriculum, missing a semester may mean missing an entire year if required courses are only offered once a year. A note on being “behind”: a student who misses a semester will not be “behind”. They will have a leg-up on their classmates, even if it takes them an extra semester or year to graduate. The experience gained during the co-op is much more in-depth, due to the length of time and the commitment level required for the project.

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Best places to find internships

Internships and co-ops are great experiences, so how does one find these opportunities?

Career fairs are all about the students, so take full advantage of all the opportunities. Source: Syracuse UniversityCareer fairs are all about the students, so take full advantage of all the opportunities. Source: Syracuse University

Career fair

Most colleges conduct yearly or semesterly career fairs. Representatives from interested companies are ready to accept resumes, answer questions, conduct interviews and hire students. Often, the representatives are alumni of the school and are excited about seeing how students are developing at their alma mater.

At the career fair, the interested student should dress professionally and carry copies of their resume. Before arriving, they should also do their research and see which companies are hiring in their field, and develop a few questions to ask the representative. Within a day or two, the company may conduct on-site interviews at the school.

Professional societies

Every engineering discipline has at least once professional society. Chemical engineers can join the American Institute for Chemical Engineers (AIChE), electrical engineers have the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and there are many others that are even more specific. These professional societies often offer large discounts for student membership, sometimes as low as $25 a year. By joining, the student will have access to trade journals, job listings, networking opportunities and conference admission. They are a great place to find potential internships, as well as to learn more about the profession.

Personal contacts

Students should also consider their network, which includes friends, family, neighbors, former teachers, church and club members, and anyone else who may work in the field. Sometimes, a distant uncle who works in finance at a manufacturing facility may be the contact that sets up the internship.

Many students entered engineering because they knew someone who is an engineer or works with engineers. Those are great places to start. Checking up with those who are excited about technology or science is another good resource.

New network

Every new person is a potential opportunity. As such, students should pay close attention to how they interact with literally every person. The boring teaching assistant from the freshman chemistry lab may be the junior level engineer, looking to hire an intern a few years later. Upperclassmen, teaching assistants, members of social clubs, even strangers in line at the grocery store are potential contacts.

The author once had a student who was flying to attend a relative’s funeral. She sat next to an older gentleman on the plane and chatted with him throughout the flight. When the plane landed, he gave her a business card -- he was the chief engineer at a metallurgical facility, and offered her a job on the spot!


Before accepting an internship or co-op, it is important to evaluate the finances and living arrangements. If the internship is near the college, the student may be able to stay in the dorms or their college apartment. If it is not, they may have to find other living arrangements. Keep this in mind when evaluating a potential opportunity.

Depending on the company, they may arrange for housing, particularly if the site is remote, such as a raw materials processing facility, or they may have an ongoing deal with a local apartment complex or hotel. Smaller outfits may not have these resources and may require the intern to find their own housing in the area.

If the student must find their own housing, they should check their current lease as well as any new lease signed. In college towns, it is common for leases to allow for sub-leases, where the apartment can be leased temporarily to another person (perhaps another student on an internship), or allow for a temporary break in the lease. If neither is an option, the student should consider their finances, and decide whether the learning opportunity is worth a little extra cost, with two apartment leases over the summer.


Internships and co-ops are great ways for a student to see what it is like to work in the industry of their choosing. Why wait until after four years of college to see if a job is a good fit? Between the new real-world problem solving, project management and opportunities to work with a mentor, internships and co-ops are worth the time invested.

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