How long should I stay at my first job?

In most cases, experts say a year to ensure you get the most out of the experience.

How long should I stay at my first job?

Your first “real” job—the one that goes beyond just a summer gig or an internship—can feel like the foundation of the rest of your career.

First jobs are great for learning about what it means to be an employee, says Lynda Spiegel of Rising Star Resumes in New York City. Not only can you grow more knowledgeable about the company and the position you hold, but also about workplace culture and how to conduct yourself professionally.

But you don’t need to stay until your hair is gray to build a solid foundation. No matter why you took your first job, there will come a time when you start planning your next move.

Meet the minimum benchmark

Many experts say that a year is considered to be the minimum stay for a first job.

An entry-level job is a paid opportunity to learn, says Alfred Poor, a career coach based in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.

“Learn to do your job well, and look for ways that you can be even more valuable to the company in time,” he says. “Remember, nobody will give you the bigger responsibilities until you've proven that you can handle the small ones.”

During that first year, Poor says you shouldn’t expect to get a raise or promotion—and you shouldn’t get frustrated.

“New graduates need to be more realistic in their expectations, and realize that they are not going to start at the top, or even in the middle,” he says. Almost everyone starts at the bottom, and it's up to you to be observant and learn what you can.

Stay if you see opportunities

At the same time, if you’ve found a good fit or see a strong career path at your first employer, feel free to stick around after a year is up. Should you find yourself in a collaborative environment or with a good mentor, it would make sense to say, Spiegel says.

If you stay on and find that opportunities for advancement aren’t likely after two or three years, then it could be time to reassess your options, she says.

Exceptions to the rule

There are exceptions to the one-year recommendation, of course. If you take a job at a much lower level than your qualifications and experience would indicate, it makes sense to leave if you get an offer of a position more in line with what you want, even if you haven’t been in your current position very long, says Ron Culp, professional director of the public relations and advertising graduate program at DePaul University in Chicago.

“In this topsy-turvy job market, many people settle for junior-level jobs despite qualifications that merit more senior positions,” he says. “When this occurs, all bets are off and there is no one-year grace period before moving to other opportunities.”

An abusive work situation or experiencing harassment are also good reasons to leave your first job early. In addition, the company or position may simply be a bad fit—for example, you may have landed at a work-hard, play-hard type of office, when you just want to finish your work and clock out at the end of the day.

If you find yourself in a bad situation, look back over the hiring process you went through and see if you can spot any red flags you didn’t recognize at the time, says Matthew Randall, executive director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania.

“Before committing to your next employer, refine your due diligence efforts to ensure that your next job is your dream job,” he says.

If you do leave before a year is up, Culp says you should stay in your next position more than a year. If you leave your second job too quickly, it can establish a pattern of job-hopping on your resume—and that can be a red flag for many employers.