How long should I stay in my first job?

Whether you are just beginning to think about your career, have had your first job offer or have already started working, there are lots of ways to make sure that you stay in your first job for a length of time that suits you.

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When they plan for their first job, many graduates find that the idea of a permanent desk with their name on it feels like a big commitment. What if they get stuck behind that first desk for their entire career? What if there are no promotion opportunities with their employer and they want to leave? If this is you, or you suspect it might be you in the coming years, read on for some advice on how to think about your first job and how long you’ll stay there for.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the number of jobs available in the area of work you're interested in/working in is an important factor when thinking about how long to stay in your first job, and one we help you to consider throughout this article.

If you’re still considering your options

You’re still thinking about possible career paths. How do you start off your job search if you’re suffering from career-commitment phobia?

Remember that your first job is not likely to be your last

Your first job is your springboard into your chosen career, nothing more and nothing less. Students generally don’t expect to stay long working for their first employer, with the Cibyl Graduate Survey 2020 stating that 46% of students questioned expected to stay with their first employer for one to two years.

It’s worth mentioning that this survey was conducted before the pandemic. Depending on the industry and type of work, the economic repercussions of Covid-19 may make it more difficult to find a role with another employer. So, some of those surveyed could end up staying longer than they expected. While it might be a bit further down the line, with careful planning you should still be able to secure a role with a second employer that suits you. Take a look at our advice on job hunting during a pandemic for further guidance on this.

It's also notable that the Cibyl statistic refers to how long students expected to spend with their first employer, not in their first job. As we explore below, it may be possible – and suit you – to change your role but not your employer.

Think about what industry you want to work in

If you’re worried about ‘getting stuck’ in your first job, have a think about what industry to work in. In some sectors, like marketing or publishing, it generally doesn’t raise eyebrows to explore different roles with different employers in the first couple of years – especially as some first jobs will be temporary anyway.

In other sectors you might find that it’s in your best interest to stay with your first employer for more than a few years. Engineering graduates, for instance, typically take a professional qualification when they start work, which for some takes five years or longer. Many value the consistency that comes with gaining their professional qualification with the same employer; it is possible to leave early and finish the qualification elsewhere, but staying in your first job means that your mentor will have a good idea of what projects to assign you to help you acquire all the necessary skills.

Think about what would suit you when you pick a sector. If you want some flexibility while you explore your options, look for rotational graduate schemes where you try out different roles within the same company for a few months at a time.

When considering your job hunt in light of the pandemic, you could think about how certain sectors are faring up when carrying out research into those you’re interested in. If one is struggling more than others, for example, and you manage to secure a first role in that sector, it’s likely to be more difficult to find another job. That is, unless you decide to change sectors later on; you might also consider how easy it will be to do this (as this will differ across sectors). You could read about the sectors that are struggling and surviving during the pandemic as a starting point.

If you’re actively job hunting

You’re looking for a job, or perhaps already received some offers. What’s the next step?

Research and talk to employers

Once you’ve pinned down what your own preferences are and started looking for jobs, you need to determine whether you want to commit to an employer. Try to find out what opportunities are available; how likely is a promotion in the future? Some employers provide opportunities to learn a new language or to work abroad (when this is once again permitted) if they have offices in other countries. Research the organisation you’re interested in. Speak to a recruiter about what a typical career path looks like within that organisation. If you find that there is plenty of opportunity, you may be happy to stay with the same employer for many years.

Read your contract carefully

Training new employees is expensive, so employers will not want you to take part in this training and then leave. Your contract might therefore involve working for a certain length of time after the training is completed, and could require you to cover some of the training costs if you leave. Read your contract carefully, including the small print, and consider how the notice period and other restrictions might impact you in the coming years. If you feel like the contract protects the employer’s interests and not yours, don’t be afraid to discuss it with them or look for other opportunities.

If you’re already in work but considering leaving

You got the job but you’re already ready for the next challenge. What do you do?

Could you change jobs but not employer?

Have a chat with your employer. You might have the option to move to a different role within the organisation, like going from HR to marketing, or take on different responsibilities within your current role. However, don’t just tell your current manager that you want to try doing something else; find a specific position or responsibility that interests you, or specify why another department is right for you. While you can’t expect new roles and responsibilities to be given to you if there are no openings in the organisation, you also shouldn’t leave without having explored this option. Take the initiative to show that you are ready for new challenges, but do it in such a way that you don’t seem like you just want to ‘get away’. If you have realistic expectations, your organisation might be sympathetic to helping you steer your career in a direction that interests you.

Frame your decision in a positive light

If you do leave, you might worry that your decision could make you look uncommitted on your CV. Many recruiters will not want to hire someone who seems to move systematically from job to job, but they will understand that your first job might not have been right for you. For this reason, there is no need to comment on why you left on your CV. For future interviews, however, it’s good to think about how you will frame your decision. If asked about your previous job, highlight the skills and experiences that are transferable to the role you are applying for. You can also talk about what aspects of your last role inspired you to apply for the current position; for example, your first job might have been at its best when you got to use your numeracy skills, and as a result you could go on to apply for a job where numbers play a large role.

Consider Covid-19

Just as it has probably played a part in almost every other part of your life, the pandemic must be involved in your decision-making when it comes to leaving a job. As our article points to, you may find more vacancies in some sectors than others, but graduate recruitment has been declining across the board. According to a 2020 report by the Institute of Student Employers, there was a 12% overall decline in the number of graduates recruited in 2019 and 2020 when compared with 2018 and 2019. The ISE is a group of large, high-profile graduate recruiters, too, meaning they may have more resources to keep up recruitment than smaller recruiters.

Weighing up your options to find the right one for you

This is an important decision but, ultimately, it’s an individual one. Perhaps you know that leaving your job is the right option for you right now and you have the savings/support to keep you going until you find something else. Alternatively, you might err on the side of caution and decide to focus on applying for jobs, ready to leave when you secure one that suits you; our article on when to apply for graduate jobs during a pandemic might be useful for this approach. Or perhaps, on reflection, you’d be happy to try to spend the next few months or years picking up all the skills and knowledge your current position has the potential to provide you with.

Article last updated 24 February 2021.

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