Careers advice

How long should you stay in your first job?

Where’s the sweet spot?

What you’ll learn

  • The general consensus for how long you should stay in your first job.
  • When this rule doesn’t apply.
  • How to leave your first job with grace.
  • Why you shouldn’t get too cosy in your first job.
  • How to find more opportunities in your first job if you feel you aren’t moving forward.
  • How to explain a short period of employment in a job interview.

Landing your first job is a great feeling, but after a few months you might find your mind is already straying to the future.

This is understandable, but many employees worry about leaving their first job ‘too soon’. So when is it acceptable? And how you should go about doing it? Here are some tips.

How long should you stay in your first job? What to think about

The general consensus is that you should stay in your first job for at least a year.

Here’s why this can be a good idea:

1. You need to gain experience

As you’ll already be finding, you learn heaps in your first job. This is your first chance to put what you learnt at school or uni into practice in a real life setting.

Even if it isn’t the dream job (and very few of us jump straight into a dream job!), the experiences you pick up will be great for boosting your CV in your next job.

As long as there are good opportunities with your current employer, the longer you stick it out, the more you’ll learn – simple as.

You'll get heaps of valuable experience from your first job.

2. Hiring managers and recruiters look at tenures

While it’s very common for job hunters, and especially younger job hunters, to move around a lot more than they used to, you don’t want to appear flakey.

We’re not saying that leaving your first job after less than a year will seriously damage all future job searches, not at all, but if you only stayed for a matter of months, expect some questions on this at interview time.

3. You don’t want to burn bridges

Unless you’re applying for temporary contract roles, no employer or recruiter hires someone with the expectation that they’ll only last a few months. Recruiting is expensive, and you’ll definitely raise a few eyebrows if you quit your first job soon after taking it.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. If you’re sure that changing jobs is the right call, you can’t let your employer’s opinion get in your way. However, you’ll probably need someone from your current company to be a reference for your next role, so you want to stay in their good books. We’ll look at how to quit your first job in the right way below.

When should you leave your job after less than one year?

To re-emphasise, the ‘rule’ here is only a guide. If your first job really isn’t for you, that’s your call to make. However, if you’re experiencing any of the following scenarios, that might make your decision easier:

1. You took a job you’re overqualified for

We’ve all got bills to pay, so it’s not uncommon to take jobs we’re overqualified for while we wait for something better to come along. If this is you, it’s unlikely you’re gaining a lot of valuable experience, so hanging around for a year might not be a smart career move.

If you find you're overqualified for the role, you may want to consider leaving earlier.

2. You’re being mistreated

It’s sad, but it happens – not every employer is a good employer. If you’re uncomfortable in your job, and have unsuccessfully tried to resolve the situation, you don’t want to put up with it for a year. This could be anything from being underpaid to unethical behaviour from your boss or colleagues.

3. You’ve been offered a great job

Perhaps you applied for a role on an impulse, or an employer approached you through your Trade Me Jobs profile. If it’s an opportunity that can’t be missed, well it can’t be missed.

How to get more out of your first job

If the reason you’re thinking of moving on is tied to a feeling of lack of opportunity in your current role, we recommend trying to actively seek these out before you head for the door. There are a few ways you can find extra learning and development opportunities at work, including:

  • Creating a professional development plan: these are generally made with the support of a manager. Essentially, this involves talking to your manager and telling them a couple of skills that you’d like to work on. Together, you can then brainstorm ways for you to do this. Having your manager help with this is great both because they might have resources to, for example, send you on a development course, and also because they can pass on their own advice and experience.
  • Volunteer for projects: when your people leader is looking for someone to take the lead on a project, make sure your hand is going up. Ideally, this will be something that’s just that little bit outside of your comfort zone, because this is how you grow.
  • Attend talks: it’s quite common for businesses to both bring in guest speakers, and provide the opportunity for internal people leaders to talk on what their team is up to. Try to attend as many of these talks as possible, they’re both a chance to learn and to network with other professionals in your sector.

Why you shouldn’t get too cosy in your first job

Now, we’re never going to tell you to leave a job that you love. However, it’s also important to regularly do some critical reflection on your career and whether it’s still offering you everything you want. Part of this involves thinking about whether you’ve settled and become too comfortable in your role, just because it’s familiar. Here are a few reasons why this isn’t a good idea:

  • You won’t be developing: if you’re too comfortable for too long, chances are you aren’t being challenged regularly enough. While you don’t want to feel out of your depth at work, it’s important that you’re learning new skills and developing as a professional, particularly in your first job.
  • You’ll lose motivation: at first what feels comfortable and familiar might eventually start to feel boring and uninspiring. The problem is, once you’ve made this realisation, you might have sat still for so long that it’s hard to move into another role.
  • Employers will notice: if you eventually move on from a role that you became too comfortable in, employers will likely be able to tell from a CV. If they can see that you stayed in a role for a long time, and didn’t gain a lot of skills, they may well think that you’re not dynamic enough for their team.

Leaving your first job without burning bridges

Once you’ve thought about it long and hard, and still come to the decision that you need to leave, it’s time to extract yourself with grace. Here’s how:

1. Check your employment agreement

Your employment agreement will have a section on notice periods, and what’s required of you. Read this before telling your boss about your decision.

2. Tell your boss first

Especially if you’ve had a bad experience in your first job, it can be tempting to shout about your plans to move from the highest mountain top. Don’t. The last thing you want is for your boss to hear about your planned departure from someone else. This will make an already potentially awkward conversation worse.

If you're planning to leave, give your boss a heads up before handing in your formal notice.

3. Resign with class

Organise a meeting with your boss first to tell them about what’s happening. Thank them for the opportunity, and explain why you’re moving on.

Keep things professional – this is really important. If you hated the job, this isn’t the time to tell them (FYI, there’s never a time to say this). As long as the conversation went well (and most employers are understanding when staff decide to leave), this is the perfect time to ask for reference to provide to your next employer.

Once the conversation is finished, you need to write a resignation letter to formalise your decision.

4. Be prepared for a counteroffer

In this discussion, you might find out you were more important to your employer than you thought. Depending on your reasons for leaving, before entering into the conversation, consider if there’s anything your boss could offer (a pay rise, promotion, new responsibilities) that might entice you to stay.

5. Keep working hard

Whatever your notice period is, keep working hard and offer to help with hiring your replacement, or transitioning your workload to another employee. You want to go out on a high and for people to remember you for the right reasons.

Discussing leaving your job after less than a year in an interview

You shouldn’t worry about discussing this in a job interview. Good employers are unlikely to be worried about something like this if you’re ticking the boxes they’re looking for in the next hire. However, it’s still a good idea to have an answer prepared in case this comes up, so it doesn’t throw you off your stride.

The single best piece of advice we can give you here is to demonstrate why moving on from your first job was/is the right move for your career. As always, when talking about a former employer in a job interview, you don’t want to downtalk them. Even if you’re leaving because your job is boring you to tears, you need to frame this in the light of you’re looking for more challenges that will help you grow as a professional, and you know their role will provide this.

You don’t need to act apologetically about leaving, or wanting to leave, your first job after a short period of time, but it’s okay to acknowledge that you understand that this might not look great. For example, you could say something like:“I realise that being employed for such a short period isn’t ideal. However, there was a rearrangement of the team between when I applied and when I started, which meant that some of the core job responsibilities had been moved to another department, so there weren’t as many chances for development as I had originally hoped for. Therefore, I made the difficult decision that this wasn’t the right place for me to stay.”