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What It’s Like to Co-op at a Startup

Last week we hosted our Co-op at a Startup Info Session which featured a panel of students who spent co-op placements at local startup companies. Our three panelists shared their experiences as well as provided tips on how to get hired for these coveted jobs. For those who weren’t able to make it to the event, keep reading to hear some of the insider info and advice our panelists shared!

The three panelists who took the stage were Trevor Yu, Shakir Elliot-Mohamed and Victoria Robertson.

Trevor Yu is in his 3A term of Biomedical Science. Trevor’s startup co-op experience includes terms as a Jr. Assay Engineer at ExVivo Labs as well as working in drug delivery engineering at Avro Life Science.

Shakir Elliott-Mohamed is in his 3B term in Materials and Nanoscience. Shakir worked at SannTek for a co-op term, which is a startup developing a cannabis breathalyzer.

Victoria Robertson is in her 4B term in Biochemistry. Her most recent co-op experience was at Arylla, which uses invisible ink to identify counterfeit products. Some of Victoria’s primary tasks at Arylla included testing and analysis, as well as business development.

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Left to right: Trevor Yu, Shakir Elliott-Mohamed, Victoria Robertson

Pros and Cons of Co-op at a Startup

When asked about the cons of working at startup, panelist Trevor mentioned that startups place a lot of responsibility on the workers, requiring students to “follow through and meet expectations”, which sometimes involved working “outside of typical 9-5 hours to meet responsibilities”. Victoria cautioned our audience that work at a startup “can be tiring” and that “startup culture is very different than the culture at larger companies”, which takes some time to adapt to. In Shakir’s experience, co-op students at startups may be asked to do things in a field out of their area of expertise. While it can be daunting to venture outside of their comfort zone, he recommended that even if students have to “ bungle their way through”, they should “say yes” whenever possible, as this can bring the opportunity to learn valuable new skills.

Though there were cons, they all stressed that the pros greatly outweighed the cons. Our panelists all mentioned that their co-op experiences gave them unique skills and opportunities, ranging from personal development skills such as “self-regulation” and “being assertive”, to technical and business skills. They also highlighted the variety and excitement that each dynamic day brought them. Shakir emphasized this, saying “every single day you’re doing something that could actually change the direction of the company.” 

Working on a small, close-knit team also resulted in several benefits that were mentioned throughout the session. Trevor said that “being able to talk to people at all levels of a company” enhanced the value of his experience, allowing him to connect with workers ranging from fellow interns to the CEO of the company. Working on a small team also brought work that participants found empowering and had value. This allowed Victoria the unique opportunity to “actually invent and design some of the experiments“. She said that she felt proud of what she was doing, really feeling as though she was truly “accomplishing something of value”.

Co-op at a Startup vs. Larger Companies

All three panelists have a variety of work experience outside of startups, ranging from positions in academia to government and large technical corporations. This allowed them to compare their co-op experiences at startups, highlighting several differences.

Our panelists told the audience that co-op positions at larger companies tend to be more regular, with more clearly outlined roles and working hours. On a day-to-day basis, workers generally have a strong idea of how their day will go, resulting in a more predictable day with less flexibility. Naturally, larger companies tend to come with larger spaces and far more employees. The working environment at a startup is considerably different, likely nvolving a smaller team working in close proximity to each other. Panelists also stressed that startup experiences allow co-op students to have far more input, influence, and responsibility in their positions.

Thinking of Doing a Co-op Placement at a Startup?

Our panelists provided a ton of recommendations, key advice, and specific tips on how to find positions and actually get hired!

General advice

  • Keep an open mind in terms of expectations
  • Access Concept resources, especially coaches
  • Don’t let your major limit you to one specific field!

Finding a startup position

Getting hired  

  • Apply to a large volume of positions
  • Ask your peers for inside information on companies
  • Extremely passionate applicants could consider contacting a CEO directly 
  • Work on building more than just your technical skills
  • Be sincere and genuine in your application, but don’t sell yourself short!

Hopefully, this helped to open your eyes to the wonderful world of startups and you are considering joining one for a unique co-op experience. If you are actively looking for a position or curious about what positions are available, be sure to come out to the Co-op at a Startup Job Fair on February 7, 2020. If you would like to know more about what working at a startup is like, meet with our Concept Coaches and they can share their knowledge and experiences.