Work Experience for Students

Half of the students who graduated from university in 2021 had participated in some kind of practical experience in their program, whether it was a co-op, internship, or other arrangement (data from CUSC). And that doesn’t include external work experience! You want to remain competitive, so make sure you are building your resume now and not waiting until you graduate. The value of student work experience pays off when you graduate with a resume full of examples of your skills and experiences.

The Importance of Work Experience

Student work experience allows you to try out different jobs and see what you like and dislike. This will help you make decisions about your career. Another benefit of student work experience is that you can begin building your network and collecting references for future opportunities. You need to build and demonstrate your skills, both transferable and technical, for future job applications and interviews. If you are planning on (or even thinking about) going to grad school, it is probably better to have specific types of work experience for your application, so make sure you look at your desired grad programs ahead of time.

How to Choose Your Work Experiences

What are your decision criteria for your work experiences? First of all, you might want to think about the pay rate. If you are working to support yourself while you’re at university, you may want to look for roles with the highest pay rate. Unpaid internships may not be the best option for you.

You may also want to consider how the position fits into your future career. Are you still building new skills that will help you, or have you learned everything you can? Are you building your network so you can have access to future opportunities? One of my biggest regrets from undergrad is that I stayed in the same minimum-wage part-time cashier position pretty much until I graduated. I wasn’t able to articulate my skills well enough to understand how I qualified for more interesting or higher-paying roles. If only I had known more about transferable skills at that time, I could have sought out more valuable work experiences for myself! Below, you’ll find nine ideas for student work experience.

Nine Ways to Gain Work Experience as a University Student

  1. Co-operative Work Terms (Co-op)
  2. Internships
  3. Volunteering
  4. Practicum
  5. Service Learning
  6. Research Assistantships
  7. Teaching Assistantships
  8. Other On-Campus Work
  9. Off-Campus Work

Co-operative Work Terms (Co-op)

Co-op work terms are organized through your university, and you may receive credit for them. The university will likely have specific requirements for Co-ops. These may be around the type of work or employer, or the number of hours you have to complete.

If you know you want to do Co-op, make sure you do your research when you are selecting your program and university. It is not necessarily available for every program at every uni. Some programs may also require you to do Co-op, so keep an eye out for that when you’re applying.

Your university will typically have advisors or other staff to help you through the Co-op program. Co-op students represent their university, and if the employers aren’t happy with how the students do, they can stop hiring from that university. However, you will most likely still have to apply, compete, and be selected for hire by the employer. Students are not just assigned a job, but these employers know that they’re hiring students, so they know you probably don’t have tons of work experience when you apply.

Internships

Internships can be similar to Co-op jobs, but may not meet all the requirements. They may be part time, or less than a semester in duration, be unpaid, or have other differences. However, they are similar in that they know they are hiring a student, and that you may not have as much work experience as other employees. Some industries really focus on internships for their hiring pool. If you work in one of these industries, you may need to do an internship in order to access higher-level positions.

If you do an internship, make sure you check the labour laws in the province where you are working. Some provinces permit unpaid interships and some do not. If you’re considering an unpaid internship, check with the labour laws or your university’s career centre to see if that’s acceptable.

Volunteering

Volunteering is unpaid work at a non-profit or charitable organization. If you don’t have very much previous work experience, this can be a great way for you to build skills and find your first references. It can be very rewarding to support a charity or non-profit organization.

I have built a great deal of my work experience through volunteering. The network I built also connected me with people who offered me paying work later on.

Practicum

A practicum is a specific work experience where you have the opportunity to demonstrate the skills needed for the field you are studying. Applied fields (such as nursing, teaching, counselling, and others) often require practicums. A supervisor will usually assess your practicum and provide feedback in order for you to receive credit. If your program requires a practicum, it should be listed as one of the requirements, along with the courses.

Service Learning

Service learning is typically unpaid work that is done for a class that supports the community. It may be the whole class, or it may be one assignment. Students can support their community while also building their skills. If this is something you are interested in, you should ask around your department. If you have academic advisors, they may be able to connect you with these opportunities.

Research Assistantships

A research assistant works with a professor on an academic research project. Universities usually pay research assistants, but there may be exceptions. If you are planning on applying to grad school, this experience will probably be helpful, and will help you get academic references from your professors. Universities usually prioritize grad students for research assistant roles, making it difficult for undergrads to get into this work. Speak with professors and staff in your department or program to find out about opportunities.

Teaching Assistantships

A teaching assistant supports a professor’s teaching. That might mean grading assignments and exams, or teaching tutorials, or preparing slides, or a variety of other tasks. This will give you an opportunity to work with younger students and get a reference from your professor. Grad schools often value this experience, depending on the program. As with research assistantships, universities normally prioritize grad students for these positions, so they can be difficult or impossible for undergrads to get. If you are interested, ask around your department or program, and speak with your professors.

Other On-Campus Work

Most universities also hire students for a variety of on-campus work, from shelving books in the library to working in an administrative office. They will often pay higher than minimum wage, and these positions can be helpful because you don’t have to comute after class, since you are already on campus. Check with your university’s human resources office to see what’s available.

Off-Campus Work

This is the broadest category. Off-campus work is literally anything you can find off campus. Some students work at Starbucks, or as servers in restaurants, or cashiers… the options are extensive. My suggestion with this is that you make sure it contributes to your future career (through skills, networking, or references), and try to find what works best for you.

The Govenrment of Canada runs something called FSWEP – the Federal Student Work Experience Program. This is a hiring program for federal government jobs. They tend to post a high number of summer jobs, but there are positions posted all year, an the rates of pay are clearly published.

Getting Paid to Study

I wanted to add a note about this because I have met students who are very strategic with trying to find work that allows them to do homework. It might be worthwhile to find you a job where a lot of the work is just being present in case somebody needs you. That way you can study or do homework in between, and still get paid. The examples that I am aware of where this is possible are night receptionist at a hotel, an event technician, and a pet or house-sitter. If you know of others, I would love to share them here so please reach out – email@chooseyouruni.ca.

Do you have questions about work experience for students? Send me an email (email@chooseyouruni.ca) with your questions and I’ll get back to you!

You can also join the free Beginning Career Research webinar that’s coming up on November 29. Details and registration are on Eventbrite.

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