Jan 14 2017

Why you should pay special attention to your summer co-op terms

Are you an ambitious Waterloo student, looking for software-related jobs, with many co-op terms in front of you? If so, there’s a few things to keep in mind to make the best of your time at (and outside of) Waterloo.

In particular, summer/spring (May-August) co-op terms are especially important. This is when most students do internships (read: everybody outside Waterloo). There’s more competition, but also more opportunities.

First of all, the tech sector is still doing well overall despite the occasional alarmist headline, but I’ve noticed that many medium-size companies are no longer offering Fall and/or Winter internships. This includes Dropbox, Pinterest (I heard) and Square (I heard, but less sure about that one). Airbnb is still open to doing Winter internships if they can get enough people, but there are no more Fall internships.

Those are companies large enough to have a formal internship program, but not large enough to get more than a handful (> 6) qualified interns per term outside the summer. They don’t want to provide a half-assed internship experience but the low number of interns means that there’s a high operational overhead to providing the full experience. This is also true, for example, of Jane Street. They have hired outside the summer before, but they (and I) strongly recommend interning during the summer for the full experience.

Even large companies might not bother with Fall/Winter even if they can afford to. A friend told me that their recruiters from Intel and Juniper Networks were also hiring only for the summer. Finally, some companies (e.g. PDT Partners) never had non-summer internships at all.

Now, there’s plenty of other jobs in Canada, at small companies and at large established companies, so this isn’t really about being able to find a job. However, I do recommend medium-size companies as the safe choice:

What does this mean for you?

Save your summer co-op for companies that hire mostly during the summer

If you’re gonna work at a Canadian company, a startup, or large company, try to do it during the Winter and Fall, and save the summer slots for the companies that hire only during the summer. The experience at small companies & startups is probably not going to differ much by the time of the year, they’ll just assign you whatever work they have at the moment. The large companies do have more things going on during the summer, but there will be at least a dozen or two other Waterloo interns at other times of the year, so there will still be plenty of events and people to meet.

Try to move co-op terms around to have more summer internships

This does not apply if you are in engineering. If you’re in math, you can request a sequence change. They usually won’t let you change your sequence for your first co-op or two, but after that they are quite flexible. You just need a reasonable reason for your request, like “the offer I got from this company is only valid for the summer”.

Below are some common co-op sequences or rearrangements that add an extra summer internship in your later years.

1A 1B W1 2A W2 2B W3 3A W4 3B 4A W5 W6 4B
1A 1B W1 2A 2B W2 3A W3 3B W4 4A W5 W6 4B
1A 1B 2A W1 2B W2 3A W3 W4 3B 4A W5 W6 4B

The first row is the most common/standard sequence, sequence 1 which keeps alternating, with the 4A study term and 5th work term switched around. The second row is just sequence 2, it’s not bad without any changes. The third row is sequence 4, with the 3B study term and the 4th work term switched around.

If you ever decide to take a term off, go on exchange, etc, as many students do, try to do it in a way that pushes your work terms into summer terms.

The disadvantage of having more summer internships is that you’ll be in Waterloo more when it’s cold, but weather has less impact on your happiness than you think and summer in Waterloo isn’t all that exciting. Summer in New York is quite something though.

Apply for U.S. internships early

You should apply for summer internships in the US at the same time as other internships in the US. Unfortunately this has gotten to be rather early, like September/October, due to market unraveling. Otherwise, all the intern positions might be gone by the time you start applying in February. Not all companies are aware of Waterloo’s co-op system. Even if those companies don’t have a fixed number of intern slots, they might still become more conservative in hiring as time goes on. Even if those companies have reserved slots for Waterloo, the most interesting teams might no longer be available. You don’t really need Jobmine/WaterlooWorks and even if your early applications don’t work out, you can still default back to Jobmine/WaterlooWorks.

Don’t overthink competition

You might be worried about the increased competition during the summer term. You could take that into consideration if you find evidence that it matters, but I haven’t come across any. The increased competition from other schools is largely offset by the increased number of openings. CECA statistics do show that placement rate is highest during the Fall, but this is not significant because 1) we’re talking small, 5-10% differences 2) the statistics are not specific to software jobs, which are especially plentiful and 3) they could be explained by the large number of first-year students doing their first internships in the summer. Anecdotally, I haven’t really heard anyone saying it made a difference.

Finally, just to reiterate: the tech sector is still doing quite well overall and is one of the few fields with so many internship opportunities. Optimizing summer terms isn’t something you need to do to get a good job, it’s merely about opening up a few more options.

Thanks Bartlomiej Józef Chrząszcz, Charles Lin, Evy Kassirer, Shane Creighton-Young, Shine Wang for comments & corrections.