Mastering the art of co-op: a grad student’s experience

Maddie Savage is a University of Waterloo Master of Arts co-op student in English Rhetoric and Communication Design, in the Major Research Paper stream.

Co-op 1: Worked as a researcher for Xello, a K-12 online academic planning company, updating Canadian and U.S. school databases.

Co-op 2: Worked as a content development associate at the University of Waterloo, Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE), interviewing both students and employers to develop news stories for the CEE websites.

Maddie smiling

Why did you choose a master's program with a co-op distinction?

“I had worked for a year between my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I wasn't 100% sure about what I wanted to do in the future.”

“It is kind of unusual to have a co-op opportunity for an English master's program. I didn’t know how many jobs were out there for English students, so doing co-op was something that I thought would open a lot of doors and show me different opportunities for jobs that I could get as an English student.”

“I applied to only one other school with a co-op option, and it wasn't as big or as organized as Waterloo, so I ended up choosing Waterloo.”


How is the master’s co-op program?

“I didn't know before applying, but co-op during grad school at Waterloo is relatively new. Since I didn't do my undergrad at Waterloo, I did struggle a bit because I didn't have the same experience as my classmates who did their undergrad at Waterloo and had done co-op experiences before.”

“It was all new to me. There wasn't a lot of direction as to where or how to apply and other things that I needed. So, there was a lot of trial and error. After my first co-op term, the process got a lot easier. Now I feel that co-op is a great program and a great way to find jobs in your field.”

“You have to consider that adding co-op adds almost an extra year to your degree, but it is worth it.”

Maddie decided to schedule her degree by doing all six of her courses in her study terms first, then both of her co-ops back-to-back, so she can focus on her major research paper for her last term.

“It's nice that in my grad program your schedule is up to you! You're given an example timeline and that's usually what people follow, but you can alter it with your supervisor's approval.”

What skills did you learn in co-op that you wouldn't have gotten in a regular program?

“I learned a different kind of writing. The writing I do for my coursework is very academic with big essays and things like that.”

“When doing writing for a corporation, you have to follow style and brand guidelines and gear your writing towards a new audience. It's not just writing for a niche academic audience, but for a more general, broader audience. You have to be able to write in a way that is accessible to everyone, which is something that is good to practice, but was hard to learn how to switch back and forth.”

Maddie standing next to a camera and box light


“In general, co-op showed me different possibilities for what I can do outside of academics with my English degree. Some people view English as one of those degrees where you can't get a job after, but co-op showed me that’s definitely not the case as there are so many options out there.” 

Maddie talked about how nice it was to know there were many interesting jobs out there for someone with an art degree, as art programs can sometimes be overshadowed by other programs like engineering, business, and science regarding well-known job positions.

“Co-op helped me build a résumé, but greater than that, it showed that there are actual opportunities out there for Art’s students.”  

“I also realized, mental health-wise, it's nice to have a break from school. I personally found grad school very stressful, so having that break from school to be able to work a consistent 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule and have your nights off was really nice.”  

“Co-op let me realize that I might not want to continue school to get my PhD. It is an option, but now I know I can also work and enjoy life too.” 

 How did you find collaborating with your team in the workplace environment?  

“My first co-op at Xello was fully remote, so I didn't really get much opportunity to collaborate with people in person, it was mostly independent work.”  

“My position at CEE was hybrid and it was nice getting to develop those teamwork skills in person as well. In my academic program, there's not a lot of group work. It's mostly individual papers and projects.”  

“It’s nice that the stories I write go through so many people, it's such a collaborative process compared to independent writing in school.” 

What were highlights of your co-ops 

“I got to attend an actual interview production in person, which was interesting. I got to see how they set up all the cameras and equipment and see behind the scenes how they got the footage. It was nice to be able to sit there and do the interview in person, not just over Zoom.”

“Also, just being able to meet everyone on the team and being able to get the in-person work experience again was nice. Because most of my graduate degrees were online because of COVID, I didn't get the opportunity until the end to get to know people in my program. So, I think it's nice to be able to have that experience of working in-person.”  

Maddie in front of the University of Waterloo sign

 What challenges did you come across?   

“I think because master’s co-ops are pretty new there's a lot that is still being developed.”

“In the future, once they develop PD courses for grad students hopefully, they will include things like how to build a résumé and cover letter and feature grad school experiences.”


“Education becomes your whole identity when you're in grad school. I think it would be good to be able to learn how to showcase those skills on your résumé and how to apply to future schools, for people who want to continue to PhD or do another master’s.”  

“We also apply through WaterlooWorks the same as the undergrads. So, it could be a helpful development if they added a filter for grad students as it is hard to find specific jobs for graduate students on WaterlooWorks.”

“Also, I got a decent amount of interviews but I found a lot of the questions were geared toward undergraduate students. For example, they would ask about my prior work experiences, but I had never done co-op before. All I had was part-time jobs that I did throughout my undergrad and summer. But it felt like my jobs were not valued as highly as co-op experiences.”    

Would you encourage other master's students to do co-op?” 

“Yes, for sure, especially if you haven't done co-op before, like me. I think co-op is a good way to test out different jobs in a short period of time.” 

“Co-op only being four months makes you feel less stuck in a position than a full-time job because they are just long enough to test out different opportunities. I had two different jobs in eight months and it was great to be able to see what's out there without a long-term commitment.” 

“Without the co-op option, I would have just done my program, graduated and then applied to a full-time position. I wouldn't know if I liked that type of work and I would have felt obligated to stay in the role. During co-op, you know you're not obligated to stay in a position, allowing you the freedom to figure out what you like.” 

“Another thing is grad school is expensive, especially after you just spent four years paying for your undergrad. A lot of people do a master’s part-time while working their full-time job, but that takes a long time. Grad co-op is a good opportunity to get work experience and academic experience, while making some money.”



“It alleviates the pressure of graduating undergrad and then having to find your full-time, forever job. You have the time to go do your master’s, make a little bit of money and get job experience.”

“I worked part-time from the age of 16 to 22 and I think it is hard completing university when you're working a separate part-time job too. But co-op set periods of time for work and school. I think it's nice to have the opportunity to focus on school and then just on work. You can throw yourself wholeheartedly into what you are doing. A lot of students at universities without co-op don't get the opportunity to work a 40-hour week and focus only on their studies the next term.”  

What's next for you?  

“I've applied to a PhD program so far, but I also am looking to apply to jobs. Through co-op, I realize I like to have the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule and have my night off. During school, you have to schedule work yourself and there's always more that could be done.” 

“Before doing co-op my idea was to finish grad school as fast as I can and then graduate and it'll help me get a job afterward. But now I'm realizing it's kind of nice with co-op that you can do both.”   

“I don't think I would be in the same position now if I had done a master's without a co-op. Now I will be able to tell future interviewers about these experiences. A lot of employers don't hire on skills that you have through your degree, they want you to have a well-rounded background of work experience and school.”

“Co-op eases a lot of anxiety about what's next. When you don't have co-op, you feel like you have no idea what you want to do next. Co-op gives you that experience and the knowledge of what you like and what's out there.”    

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