How Being Undeclared Prepared Me for Co-op

by Bonnie Yao

Every part of going on your first co-op is kind of intimidating; that is completely reasonable. After all, going on co-op is a brand new experience.

I was 100% in this boat last fall when I applied for my first co-op. I also had a couple extra reasons to be more nervous (which in retrospect had no negative effect on my application or my job): I was in my third year with no chance of volunteering in a lab during COVID, I was one semester and a half away from graduating with a degree in Neuroscience, and I have no experience remotely close to my field!!! With my resume filled with experiences that would have aligned better with the fields I explored and did NOT declare, I started reading through all the job descriptions on NUWorks, Northeastern’s co-op application database.

Eventually, thanks to my clear understanding of why I love Neuroscience (flashback to the countless conversations I had with Explore Program folks), I got a job as a research assistant in a Neurobiology lab in Harvard Medical School. In the end, I loved my co-op. It was nerve-wracking at times, but mostly I learned so much about the professional field of research and started to gain concrete knowledge in Neuroscience.

But that’s not what I want to tell you today. Now that I have finished one co-op, I want to point out how similar the co-op process is to finding a major to declare. And as Explore Students (or prospective ones!) you will already have completed one step before going on the next! So there really is NOTHING to worry too much about.


Professional Exploration

To start, the co-op program gives students the opportunity to explore professionally. The ultimate goal is to find something you are interested in and you’re fairly confident you’ll become good at. You want to enjoy the process of exploring, but never lose sight of the bigger picture. That’s exactly like picking a major! Both processes are neither taking the very short look nor the extremely long one. In my opinion, both your academic program and your co-op experiences can direct you to places for the next few years, but not your whole life. Just like I decided taking General Chemistry is the “necessary evil” for me to get to the fun Neuroscience classes, you could approach a co-op understanding that it’s not your dream career, but it will provide you the necessary skills and experience to get there. However, it is very important to try something new when you find yourself wondering if you’d like it. It is your exploration process!


Content vs Style

With those things in mind, the actual roles of these jobs you are looking for might tell you about what you like to do OR how you like to do that. When evaluating the types of classes in a major I’m exploring, I often ask myself, “Do I like what I’m learning in this class?” and “Do I like how we are learning it?” At work, you get to know about the ins and outs of a whole industry, like Human Resources or Academic Research. Do I like what this industry does in the world? Do I want what this industry gives me in return? On the other hand, you learn about the type of work one does in this role and the roles around you. Do I like coming up with experiments and analyzing the data? Do I like talking to people and managing relations? Do I want to do what my superiors do when I get to that level?

For me, since the topic of my interest is clear – I want to do Neuroscience-related jobs – the last questions really cleared my path forward. Yes, I see myself doing what the post-docs in my lab do in the future.


Comfort with Ambiguity

One of the things I loved about going through academic exploration with the Explore Program is that I learned to be comfortable with the ambiguity in my paths. I understand that there will always be uncertainty even if I thought through all my options to the best of my abilities. But I also know I have some tools to put my best foot forward. For example, it’s always good to talk to those people who are already where you imagined you could be, whether that’s talking to students in a particular major department at NU Horizons or chatting with your co-workers during lunch hours. It’s always possible to learn something from every experience, and when I’m really stuck in a role I don’t enjoy I try to think of those transferable skills. Finally, you can find the perfect combination for your interests. It might take work and creativity if it’s not a traditional route, but it shouldn’t stop you from aiming for it.

I think it’s better for me to have thought carefully before I declared a major keeping that ambiguity in mind. I know every step forward I have made with a conscious decision, so even if I change my mind a couple years down the line, I will not regret much. I try to approach the ambiguity in my career with the same mentality.

Hopefully these tips from my experiences can help calm a bit of that anxiety of uncertainty before diving into your first professional experience. Remember, we all worried about similar things and struggled with the same thought: it is completely NORMAL. You have a lot to offer and you should have fun exploring what you want to do next.