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Written by Debbie BrideDebbie Bride

How long should you stay at your first job?

12 min read
How long should you stay at your first job?
Artwork by:George Mager
All job moves involve a leap of faith, but there’s more at stake when you decide to leave your first job. Are you shortchanging yourself by quitting too soon? Or has the right time already passed? Here, we unpack the key considerations for how long you should stay at your first job.

Should I stay or should I go? The iconic same-titled song by The Clash asks this question about a relationship quandary that most people are familiar with. And because jobs are much like significant relationships, you’ll likely face the same kind of stay-or-go decision every time a new work opportunity arises.

When it’s your first job right out of the career gate, the best option can be a tougher call. Should you hold tight and keep learning the ropes, or is it time to move on? 

There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of how long you should stay at your first job. But there are some special considerations for leaving an entry-level position. In addition, these are the same deciding factors you’ll revisit at job change crossroads down the road. In this blog, we’ll look at:

  • How first jobs are different from later employee positions
  • The one-year rule of thumb for sticking it out
  • The upsides and downsides of leaving sooner or later
  • The right way to quit your first job

First jobs only happen once

Let’s be clear: what we mean by first job is your first “real” job, not those summer lifeguard stints during high school or the call center night shifts that helped cover your college tuition. As an entry-level job, it could be the ticket to your carefully mapped out future, secured by the degree or certificate you pursued for that purpose. Or your postsecondary learning path might have been broader, leaving your career options somewhat open and flexible beyond the first job launchpad.

Either way, your first job after college is a one-time proposition. It’s where entry-level employees start at the proverbial bottom ladder rung, prepared to learn, train and grow their way upward and forward. For others it’s a way to test less certain waters, exploring possibilities and making sometimes surprising “what next?” discoveries. In both instances, your first-job challenges will start equipping you with invaluable hard and soft skills — either directly applicable now or transferable later on.

The potential to optimize this initial post-college learning opportunity is pivotal to the question of how long you should stay at your first job. How are the deciding factors different compared to the exit strategy for a subsequent employee position?

Knowing what you don’t know

First, a reality check: a first job is rarely anyone’s dream job. Curb your fantasies about that prodigious breakout role turning the heads of Fortune 500 company recruiters. Instead, most newbies can expect steep learning curves and dues to be paid. This won’t last forever. But how can you tell when enough is enough, and you’re ready for a change? No matter how clear-cut or murky your vision of where to go from here, how can you know when the time is right?  What if you’ve happily leveled up in your novice role, comfortable and content to stay put indefinitely? Should complacency be a concern? 

The outcomes of quitting or remaining in any job can never be predicted, even by someone who tells fortunes for a living. (That’s why many years ago, as a skeptic, I was gobsmacked when a card reader foretold — with uncanny precision — the completely unexpected dream gig that enabled me to leave my first post-college job.)

What almost all first-job employees have in common is a lack of professional experience. The shorter your employment history, the more unwritten chapters lie ahead. And the higher those future stakes, the greater the gamble whether you leave your first job sooner than later. 

Experts agree — give it a year

Keep your first job for one year or longer. That’s the widely accepted consensus among career coaches and hiring professionals. It sounds like advice that’s simple, straightforward, and smart. No matter how fine-tuned your career track ambitions, what’s the big rush? 

Statistical insight

Overriding the common wisdom of recruiters recommending a first job term of at least 12 months, an astonishing three out of four college graduates depart sooner than that.

One year is hardly an interminably long time to get your “real world” bearings in the post-college transition from learning to doing. Your knowledge, training, and talents will only take you so far until you’re taught how to apply them. That’s what your first job is for. Enthusiasm, curiosity, and initiative are a new hire’s best friends. Earn extra marks for being respectful and humble enough to acknowledge things you aren’t sure about and ask for direction.

Becoming more capable and confident in an entry-level role need not be a signal to pull up stakes and move on. Take advantage of the chance to discuss, watch and model what your coworkers and managers are doing. Pay attention to how well they are doing it and ask insight-yielding questions. Listen carefully to their answers and volunteer to chip in when needed.

Statistical insight

LinkedIn research revealed that job-hopping rates nearly doubled during the two decades spanning Gen-X and Millennial college graduates. Those entering the workforce between 1986 and 1990 held 1.6 jobs on average within five years of graduation. For new graduates between 2006 and 2010, the number of employers during the first five years averaged 2.85.

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Leaving your first job sooner or later — it all depends

As touched on above, resisting the urge to take a flying leap into your second job is generally advisable. But there are always exceptions. Let’s look at both perspectives.

Why stay?

You’ll likely never regret taking as much time as you need to learn as much as you can in your first job. The same can’t be said for shortchanging your potential by cutting loose too soon.

Don’t overlook the longer-haul advantages of extending your first job tenure beyond one year. That’s especially true if you've found your groove in a great workplace where growth and development are encouraged and promotions possible. A great benefits package can also be a compelling motivator to stay put.

Expert tip

High staff turnover rates can be a double-edged sword for recent college grads filling entry-level positions. Quick studies who are ambitious and conscientious have a better shot at promotions than they might have with a different employer. But beware of revolving door red flags. If there’s a consistently worrisome reason for all the staff departures, you may be better off looking at second-job opportunities elsewhere.

There’s one other reason to think twice when tempted to cut your rookie work experience short. Understandably, this can leave a bad taste in the mouth of the first employer to give you a chance and invest in your training. It sets a precedent for your next boss to feel the same way if you quickly jump ship a second time. Who can blame any employer for thinking you’re not taking these early opportunities seriously but merely using them as serial stepping stones? It could sabotage your chances of getting hired for a position that really matters.

When to call it quits

The downside of playing it too safe, for too long, in your first job can have discouraging consequences. Becoming stuck in a rut or out of touch with evolving technology and hiring trends can happen when you’re not looking. Missed earning potential can also be overlooked when people stay with the same employer, relying on incremental cost-of-living salary increases or promotion pay raises that aren’t competitive with what their peers are earning elsewhere. 

Statistical insight

Employee loyalty doesn’t always pay, according to survey data reported by TheVetRecruiter.com. Job hoppers who switch employers every three to five years are typically rewarded with more prestigious titles, salary increases in the 10% range, and attractive benefits. But pay raises for current employees — if and when they occur — are comparatively meager, between 1% and 3%.

Why might you be better off quitting your first job before reaching the one-year mark? There are many reasons — none frivolous — for reaching this conclusion after giving the job a fair shot. When it just isn’t working out, and a resolution seems unlikely, moving on is your best option. Here are some typical examples:

  • Your professional potential and the employer’s expectations have proven to be a poor match, or your goals and values are incompatible.
  • Your colleagues and bosses are too preoccupied or harried to provide the training, guidance, or support you need.
  • Your growth and development are stunted in a role that’s not challenging.
  • Your willingness to pull more than your weight doing “grunt work” is being exploited.
  • Your efforts and ideas are not appreciated, valued, respected, or supported.
  • Duties or working conditions that you initially disliked or found draining have become intolerable, perhaps even jeopardizing your physical or mental health.
  • The “ Horrible Bosses” screenplay was inspired by yours.
  • The overall work environment is toxic.

Leaving on a good note

The last thing you want to do in your first job is burn bridges. When you do decide to leave — especially before a year has passed — bow out gracefully. In addition to your resignation letter, write thank-you notes to the hiring manager and everyone who took you under their wing. Keep gripes to yourself and negative vibes under control. Be courteous and respectful toward your boss and coworkers. 

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Key takeaways

  1. While hiring professionals generally recommend staying at your first job for at least a year, early job-hopping patterns nowadays typically start sooner than that.
  2. The pros and cons of staying in your first job for a longer or shorter period depend largely on compatibility with your expectations, values, and career goals.
  3. The overriding deciding factor should be whether you’ve optimized the opportunity to learn and practice new skills while gaining work experience.
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