Searching for the Imperfect Fit

Spring 2016

Emily Pass

Schulich Leader at University of Waterloo

“I don’t understand why you’re taking co-op,” someone once said to me.  “Finding your own summer research positions is easy enough.  Co-op isn’t worth all the fees.”
Like many University of Waterloo students, Waterloo’s huge co-op program was one of the first things to attract me to the university.  The name of my degree is Honours Cooperative Physics & Astronomy; basically, it means that I alternate my semesters between work placements and academic terms.
“You’re a physics student,” they said.  “Everything on Jobmine is for computer scientists and engineers.”
They weren’t wrong, either.  Jobmine is our online matching system where students apply to jobs, have interviews arranged, and are (hopefully) matched with an employer.  Despite the hundreds upon hundreds of employers on the hunt for engineers and software developers, the number of postings for science students is small.
Over the course of my degree, I will have the opportunity to have five co-op terms.  After my undergraduate, my plan is to pursue graduate studies and eventually my PhD.
Last semester was my first co-op term and during the first round of matches I accepted a position as a Quality Assurance Developer at the software development branch of a reinsurance company.
Those last two paragraphs might seem to be at odds.  Why settle for a computer science job irrelevant to my degree, especially when I plan to pursue academic research later on?  It was only the first round; I had plenty of time to find something more science-related.  I was even ranked for a position at the Canadian Space Agency.
I wasn’t settling, though.  From the get-go, my plan for my first co-op term was a computer science job.
I mentioned before that I will have five co-op terms before I graduate.  Five co-op terms is so many opportunities, so many chances to try out the imperfect fit.  Someday I want to be a researcher and I certainly plan to do research for some of my co-op terms in preparation for this goal.  In fact, the co-op term I have arranged for this coming fall is exactly that.
On the other hand, I will never be a software developer, nor do I aspire to be.  Every job teaches you a set of skills, though, and never in my life will I have a better opportunity to try on so many different hats, so many imperfect fits, and acquire skills that make me stand out amongst the others in my field.
That is the value of the imperfect fit.  You don’t want your skills to be cut by a laser:  you may have amazing depth of ability at exactly what you do, but turn in any direction for breadth and you hit a wall.
When I was told co-op wasn’t worth it, I disagreed, and after an amazing experience in my first imperfect placement, I still do.  Sure, it wouldn’t be difficult for me to find summer research positions on my own, but a research position may not be the best experience for a would-be researcher.  For me, co-op offers far greater opportunities than simply a perfect fit.