How Long Should You Stay at Your First Job?

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How long should you stay at your first job if you don't enjoy it? College graduates aren't always thrilled with their first job after graduation, so if you’re asking that question, you’re not the first to do so.

On the other hand, you might also be wondering if it’s possible to stay too long at your first job out of college. Will it impact your career prospects if you don't make a change within a certain time period? Recent graduates often ask counselors, friends, and family members how long they need to – or should – stay in their first job before moving on.

Average Employee Tenure

It's no wonder many grads are confused. While career counselors and experts advise putting in at least a year at any job before moving on, some workers leave in far less time than recommended. A survey from Express Employment Professionals reports that 71% of college graduates spend a year or less in their first job.

Certainly, few workers are putting in decades at one employer. The median employee tenure for 2018 was 4.2 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On average, most people change jobs about 12 times during the course of their career.

When Can You Leave Your First Job?

Average turnover time shouldn't be the primary factor determining when you make a job change. Just because many people move on after a year or so doesn't mean that you should – or shouldn't – stay that long. The answer for you might be quite different depending on your unique situation at work, what you are doing in your current position, and your plans for the future.

Your goal should always be to figure out which decision benefits your own career. Even the wisdom of the experts can fail you, if it’s general advice intended for a broad audience, rather than specific insight into your situation.

However, you do want to avoid getting a reputation as a job hopper, so it makes sense to be sure before you move on. Ask yourself these questions to get an idea of whether you should leave now or to stick it out a little longer.

Questions to Ask Prior to Leaving Your Job

Are There Difficult Circumstances at Work? Are you being mistreated, subjected to unethical behavior or being asked to do something which bothers your conscience? If you have unsuccessfully tried to remedy the situation, then start to plan your exit right away, regardless of the amount of time that you have spent on the job.

Can You Get a Better Job? What are your prospects for landing a better job? It can often be better to stay at your current position until you can secure a job that is a step up. The adage that it is easier to find a job when you are still employed often holds true.

What Are Your Prospects for the Future? Is there a clear path for advancement that would enable you to transition to a more satisfying job or provide you with a more appealing boss or coworkers at your current employer? Exploring options for moving laterally or vertically at your own employer can be worthwhile before you decide to resign.

Are You Acquiring New Skills? Are you developing valuable skills or acquiring knowledge that will be of use in your career? If so, you might consider staying on longer. Conversely, if you have been performing mundane tasks for more than a year then it's time to plot a change.

Do You Have a Track Record of Success? Can you document success in your current job? If so, you will be more attractive to other employers and more ready to make a move. On the other hand, if you haven't acquired solid experience and new skills that will be an asset to a new employer, you may want to discuss with your supervisor options for bolstering your experience. You may wish to postpone your job search until you are better positioned.

Are You Underpaid? If your salary has not increased or is below the industry average after two years in your first job, you should probably start job searching. Research salaries so you know how much you are worth in today's job market.

Do You Have Another Job Offer? If you have already applied for another job and have an offer for a better position, by all means take it, even if you have only been at your first job for a short time.

Are You Planning on Grad School? If you are entering graduate or professional school in an area unrelated to your first job then usually you can feel free to leave your first job in fewer than 18 months.

How to Leave Your Job

Do Your Best Work. Whenever you decide to leave your first job, make sure that you maintain a strong work ethic and positive relations with staff right until you depart, since you will probably want or need recommendations and references.

Resign With Class. Quit the right way. Make sure to provide two weeks notice if at all possible, and avoid being negative in your resignation letter or email. Be as helpful as possible to your soon-to-be-former employer, offering to train your replacement or provide insight into your projects for other team members.

Prepare for a Background Check. Prospective employers might conduct background checks and get in touch with your former employer when considering you for employment. Therefore, it’s important not only to leave your job on a positive note, but to learn what your former bosses might say about you to future employers.

Get Ready to Tell Your Story. Worried about bad references from former employers? If you get ahead of the situation, you may be able to negotiate a more positive (or at least neutral) reference. At the very least, you’ll have time to figure out how to answer questions about your background check during the interview process. 

The Bottom Line

Don’t Quit on a Whim: Ask yourself if there are reasons to stay in your current position or make a lateral move within the company.

Think About Your Long-Term Career Plan: Whether you stay or go, you should be developing skills and connections that will help you move forward.

Make a Plan Before You Quit: Line up good references, do your best work, and give at least two weeks notice.

Article Sources

  1. Express Employment Professionals. "New Survey Results: Recent Grads Leave First Jobs Quickly," Accessed Nov. 8, 2019.

  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employee Tenure Summary," Accessed Nov. 8, 2019.

  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Number of Jobs, Labor Market Experience, and Earnings Growth: Results From a National Longitudinal Survey," Accessed Nov. 8, 2019.