This post is my general advice for those considering the Professional Experience Year, or PEY co-op program at University of Toronto, St. George campus. This advice is based on a summary of my experience at PEY, as well as others who have either participated or not participated in PEY. For reference, I’ve recently finished my undergraduate studies in Engineering Science at U of T (which I detailed in my previous post), and completed my PEY term from summer 2019 to 2020.
Every year, thousands of students enter University of Toronto for its world-renowned academics and research. Many believed that U of T’s reputation would help them gain entry into world-class companies and institutions for employment post-graduation. However, the reality is often much harsher, and with the sheer number of university graduates finishing degrees in STEM, job opportunities, especially those at reputable companies, are limited and highly competitive as a result. The present COVID-19 crisis and economic recession is only exacerbating the problem as companies have cut down on hiring, thus increasing unemployment among university graduates.
It has thus become increasingly important to have industry work experience prior to the completion of a university degree, particularly in the form of internships, to gain an advantage in finding a full-time job post-graduation. Universities have also stepped up in developing and utilizing their cooperative education, or co-op programs, to help students gain the necessary work experience. Schools such as U of T, Waterloo, and McMasters place thousands of students each year in their co-op programs. However, each program is unique and has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. How do you choose the right co-op program, or decide whether or not to pursue co-op at all? Is U of T’s PEY program right for you?
What is PEY?
Professional Experience Year, or PEY, is a co-op program unique to University of Toronto’s St. George campus, and open to undergraduate students studying Engineering and Computer Science, although students from other select Arts & Science programs (like Mathematics and Statistics) are also allowed to participate. Unlike University of Waterloo’s co-op program, PEY is optional for all undergraduate students and, therefore not required for graduation.
PEY is usually completed following the third year of undergraduate studies, although some complete it after their second year. It is required that the work term must be 12–16 months long with a single employer. This is a different format from most other co-op programs since they usually consist of multiple 4–8 month terms with different employers. The work term usually begins the summer following the second or third year, and terminates the following summer. Upon completion, students return to their studies in fall. Students completing PEY must also write a report at the end in order to receive full credit.
Students participating in PEY have access to an online job portal built by U of T’s Engineering Career Centre (ECC), where the students apply to individual job postings by submitting a resume, cover letter, and unofficial transcript. However, students can also look for jobs outside of the portal, and have it approved by the ECC upon receiving an offer.
Pros and Cons of PEY
Below are some pros and cons of PEY co-op based on my experiences and observations, as well as accounts from those who have participated in the program.
The longer work term at PEY allows for a much more in-depth experience compared to shorter co-op terms or internships. Students have time to be involved in larger projects, take on a more sizeable role, and make a bigger impact overall. In shorter internships or co-op terms, the interns have less time to adapt and learn new materials before making an impact. In my PEY experience, I was given progressively more important tasks, and was even allowed to take on a leadership role on a project near the end of my work term. This is especially important in traditional engineering fields such as civil, mechanical, chemical, biomedical, and industrial engineering, where the pace of work is slower and projects are longer, so a longer co-op term would help students learn more and make an impact.
With the increased responsibility at PEY, the interns can demonstrate their skills and abilities better to the employer, which can result in a higher rate of return offers for graduating students compared to shorter co-op terms. Personally, I was able to easily secure a return offer from my employer and negotiate a much higher compensation than my PEY salary. Many of my peers who completed PEY had the same experience.
Since the format of PEY is quite unique, it is liked by certain employers around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), such as AMD, Intel, RBC, and IBM, where they hire upwards of a hundred PEY co-op’s each year. Compared to other schools with strong co-op programs, the competition for a PEY position at U of T is not very intense as 12–16 month co-op’s are uncommon, thus the job postings are mostly considered by U of T students only.
The longer format of PEY is not very popular with companies outside of the GTA, particularly those based in the United States. Many prestigious tech companies, unicorns, and startups only offer 4-month-long internships. This makes sense because most universities outside of U of T do not offer 12–16 month-long co-op terms, therefore making them quite rare. Also, for most technology, software, and finance industries, the pace of work is quite fast, and things can change very quickly, so a 12–16 month co-op is often too big of an investment for the company and not necessary for the interns to demonstrate their ability. Consequently, PEY opportunities at prestigious tech and finance firms outside of the GTA are quite limited, especially compared to Waterloo co-op. As a result, top students can be limited by the available postings at PEY.
Due to the fact that PEY is a single 12–16 month work term as opposed to multiple shorter terms, students in pursuit of a diverse set of work experiences cannot be satisfied. In fact, many students who have participated in PEY complained about their work becoming boring and redundant towards the end of their terms. This lack of diversity in experience often leads to the students being seen as weaker candidates when recruiting for full-time employment, especially in fields such as tech and finance where having a variety of experiences is valued.
Also, working with a single employer eliminates the opportunity for students to work at progressively more reputable employers and higher-paying positions throughout undergrad, and may ultimately limit their earning potential post-graduation. It’s harder to work your way up to your dream company.
Moreover, since most students begin PEY after third year, they are at an inherent disadvantage compared to those who began doing internships earlier in their undergraduate studies, as they have less time remaining in school to expand their experiences. Thus, it is not a coincidence why Waterloo graduates earn much more on average compared to U of T grads in similar professions.
Another major downside of PEY is the generally poor organization and communication by the ECC. Based on the experiences of my peers, ECC has proven to be quite inflexible. They do not grant any exceptions for the 12–16 month work term, and students are often given just a day or two to decide whether to accept a job offer or not. Once an offer has been accepted, no new offers shall be taken. Several of my peers have encountered this issue, where they received a better offer after taking up an initial offer, and when the issue was brought up to ECC, it became a dispute between the student, the ECC, and the employer, and ended up in that student being kicked out of the PEY program.
Furthermore, the ECC job portal is subpar and quite outdated compared to the Waterloo equivalent. A cover letter is required for all job applications, which is quite redundant in today’s tech job market. Also, jobs are on a first-come first-serve basis, as opposed to Waterloo which uses a sophisticated ranking system between the students and employers. This often marginalizes weaker applicants since they will usually get rejected in favour of the stronger applicants, who are usually accepted to everywhere they apply to. This system is also quite inefficient since it results in a lot of job postings not being filled (once the stronger applicants accept their offers) and thus re-posted again and again.
What are some alternatives?
If you don’t see yourself doing the conventional PEY program at U of T but still want to pursue a year of work experience, you can simply take a gap year in which you are not enrolled at U of T and re-register the following year. Here, you need to find the internships yourself without any support from the PEY office, which means you can avoid the PEY fees and report requirements completely. This way you can structure your PEY as you want (e.g. 4 back-to-back 4-month long internships, or two 8-month internships). However, a drawback is that for jobs in the U.S., you may not be eligible for a J-1 visa (commonly used by U.S. tech companies) while you are out of school. Note that to do this successfully, you should ideally already have internship offers for a large chunk of the year.
If taking a gap year is too much of a hassle, you can try to get a 12-month PEY co-op and use the remainder 4-month gap to try to land a different internship. This way, you still have the opportunity to diversify your work experience and possibly work towards a better company or position.
Alternatively, you can try to graduate without taking an additional year and utilize your summers to apply to standalone internships that do not require the participation of a co-op program. However, be prepared to face stiff competition since you will be up against the top students from all around North America, especially for the more prestigious internships. You can also talk to your administrators and take individual semesters off in the fall and winter to apply to internships for those terms, where the competition will be weaker, but there will also be fewer opportunities. There are also part-time internships throughout the school year for those who are interested, although not usually from reputable firms.
If you’re presently in high school and have the options, you can try to get accepted into a program with co-op at University of Waterloo, or any other university with a traditional co-op program. This is especially true if you want to pursue computer science, software engineering, finance and accounting, or a similar field, where a diverse set of work experiences is valued.
Which one is right for you?
If your career goal is to work in software, technology, mathematics, or finance, a more traditional co-op program such as Waterloo Co-op is generally preferred. As mentioned above, most prestigious firms in these industries don’t offer 12–16 month co-ops, especially in the U.S., and a diverse set of internship experiences will be more helpful in the long run. I do not advise taking a gap year unless you are highly skilled and self-motivated, and capable of securing multiple internships independently.
If you are more interested in a traditional engineering field, such as civil, mechanical, chemical, biomedical, and industrial engineering, you may benefit more from a PEY co-op. This is because the pace of work is much slower compared to tech and finance industries, as the projects are often longer, and therefore you can benefit from a longer work term to make a greater impact at your employer.
If your goal is to pursue graduate studies or do academic research, I do not have a strong consensus here. However, U of T’s reputation in academia is far superior compared to other universities in Ontario, and research assistantships/internships are much easier to find at U of T. At the end of the day, whether you want to pursue a research PEY co-op, research internships, summer research, or part-time research during the school year, the opportunities for publications and reference letters are much more important than the format of your work term.
Hopefully, you now have a better idea about the PEY co-op program at U of T, the pros and cons, and some of the other options available. Before I end this lengthy blog, I have a few remarks about U of T and some general advice for you.
U of T is very much an academics and research-driven school, so it’s meant to prepare students for higher education and academia rather than employment. Thus, they did not put a large investment into PEY co-op, hence the lack of organization and communication in the ECC, as well as their outdated job portal. This also means that U of T’s general atmosphere and support system for employment is lacking, especially compared to Waterloo.
At Waterloo, the mandatory nature of co-op forces the students to prepare, as well as provide a better support system for finding employment such as resume critique, interview preparation, and alumni connections. At U of T, lower-year students are merely focused on their studies and coursework, unless they are highly self-motivated and know what it takes to land an internship.
This brings me to reiterate my advice from my previous post. If you have no idea what you want to do for a career, sit down with your family, friends, or mentors and give it a hard thought. Without a career direction, you will easily get lost under the pressure of university, and waste valuable time and earning potential. Having a well-defined career goal can lead you to take the right steps towards that goal. At the end of the day, you know what’s the best choice for you, and you want to be self-motivated instead of being pushed by your university or co-op program.
On the other hand, I believe U of T desperately needs to do a better job to make PEY more flexible with their work terms to accommodate different needs (such as completing multiple shorter work terms with different employers), and redesign their job portal to be more modern (such as making the cover letter optional) and fair (e.g. allow students and employers to rank each other). This way, PEY may attract more opportunities from prestigious companies outside of the GTA and in the U.S. to be on par with the quality of job postings at Waterloo Co-op. Recently, there have been reforms proposed to change the structure of PEY co-op, but as far as I know, no concrete action has been taken to achieve the goals above (as of May 2021).