am I ready to move on from my first job?

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my current organization for two years. It’s a small, close-knit organization where I essentially started my career. But I feel like I’ve stagnated in terms of growth and opportunity, and I feel I could get better salary and benefits if I moved on.

I recently saw a posting for a job at an organization I’d really like to work for, and I meet all their qualifications. I’d be doing something really similar to what I’m doing now. I’m looking for advice on:

1) Whether to consider a new job if I’m mostly happy in my current position.
2) When is it appropriate to move on from my first full-time job, especially if they took a chance on hiring me with little experience?
3) Is it fair to this new organization to apply and potentially interview if I’m unsure whether I would actually take the job?

Let’s take these one at a time.

1. Should you consider a new job if you’re mostly happy in your current one? Well, jobs that make you happy are hard to come by, so it’s tough to advise you to leave something you know you like for something that you won’t know for sure you’ll like until you’re in it. It can be hard to find jobs with interesting work, a good manager, a healthy workplace culture, and coworkers you enjoy, so if you have one, you’re luckier than many people. On the other hand, though, you also need to think long-term, and if you feel you’re stagnating and there’s no room for you to grow in your current job, at some point you’re going to need to leave it in order to build the type of career you want.

Whether or not that point is after only two years is hard to say without knowing a lot more about your job and your field … but I can say that two years isn’t terribly long, and if you ended up deciding you wanted to stay another year (or two), it’s unlikely to hurt you. That lead us to…

2. When is it appropriate to move on from your first full-time job? It’s not crazy to do it after two years — that’s a perfectly respectable period of time to stay in your first job. But there’s no timer that goes off then and announces it’s time for you to leave, either. If you wanted to leave, you shouldn’t have qualms about doing it now — but you also shouldn’t feel there’s a clock ticking ominously in the background.

By the way, as for feeling guilty that they took a chance on hiring you without much experience — that’s no reason to stay. That’s a reason not to leave after four months, yes, but two years? You’re in the clear. (And remember, they didn’t do that out of altruism. They did that because they thought you were the best candidate for what they were looking for, lack of experience or not.)

3. Is it fair to interview somewhere if you’re unsure whether you’d accept the job? Absolutely. In fact, that should be the case every time you interview, for the rest of your life. You should always be interviewing the employer right back, suspending judgment on whether this is a job you want until you’ve had time to learn about the work, the culture, and the manager. Those aren’t things you can learn about reliably from an ad, and they’re things that will make a huge difference in whether you’re happy in any particular role, no matter how good it looks from the outside — and therefore you should have solid answers on those factors before you begin to contemplate whether it’s a job you’d accept. (What’s more, you’ll generally interview better if it you take this stance — you’ll come across as more thoughtful and someone in a position to be choosy, which is always attractive.)

So, where does this all leave you in regard to this other job? Well, why not go and talk with them and learn more, and then decide if it appeals to you more than what you’re currently doing? If it doesn’t, you can look at other roles until you find one that does, or you can suspend your search until you’re more sure you want to leave.

Because you’re in a job you’re reasonably happy with and not itching to leave, you have the luxury of taking your time to look around, rather than just jumping at the first thing that comes along — and you could leave only if you find something you’re convinced is better for you than where you are now. That’s a really good position to be in.

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