Saying Sayonara to Your First Job

by | March 10, 2009

Hard work and perseverance, that's the way to go about climbing the corporate ladder - or so boasts many a CEO. While many CEOs like to brag that they started their careers in this manner (which probably involved more than a little bit of brown-nosing), times have changed. The same high-profile companies that, back in the day, had their pick of top-school grads willing to work at boring jobs for long hours and little pay are discovering that the allure of a big corporate name - especially in the media and entertainment industries - is fading.

As a college grad in today's job market, the long-standing myth of the first job where you "pay your dues" is becoming a thing of the past. Take me, for example. Fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania with an honors degree and a number of internships on my resume, I landed in New York City without a clue about how I was going to pay the rent for the next 12 months. I considered temping, waitressing, anything that might generate an income. In the end, I went to a recruiter whose name I found in the Village Voice. Within one week, she helped find me a job as an assistant in the advertising sales department at a major magazine. It was a great opportunity and a stellar company, she assured me - and besides, it was only a first job.

At first, I was starstruck by the prestige and glamour of working in magazine publishing: My bosses treated their clients to $200 lunches every day (as an assistant, I calculated their expenses); my friends asked if I ran into famous writers wandering throughout the halls (no); and every time someone asked me where I worked, my response generated the same wide-eyed, excited look, coupled with the same awe-inspired reaction: "Wow, that's so cool!"

Unfortunately, it wasn't so cool in real life. After three months, I was sick of playing receptionist. More importantly, I saw that opportunities for advancement were extremely limited - two fellow sales assistants had been "promoted" to marketing assistants after slaving away for two years, while the rest quit out of frustration. The corporation is stuck in the 1950s: all of the assistants are women, while the upper management remains dominated by men.

When I decided I had to get out of there, however, I wasn't sure I was making the right decision. I always heard that you're supposed to stay at your first job for at least a year, at which point you move on, or are promoted, to bigger and better things. Everyone hates his or her first job, right? Nobody's doing anything interesting, or challenging, or creative, or fun - right? I worried that if I left my first job so soon, I would become a marked woman, destined to a life of freelancing and temporary employment.

~Fortunately, the company I applied to was looking to hire someone eager to take on more challenging work. I explained that I had taken my first job under the impression that it would be more interesting than it actually turned out to be, and I was ready to move on after only three months because I was looking for greater opportunities in my field. My interviewer asked me when I realized that I didn't like my first job. "After about six weeks," I responded. By admitting that I knew I hated it, but wanted to stick it out for at least three months before I decided to leave, I was able to turn what could have been a potential liability in my hiring - my short tenure at my first job - into something relatively positive.

Certainly, employers are not eager to hire someone who has clearly jumped around a lot in his or her career, but most human resources departments will listen if you have concrete reasons for wanting to leave. In addition, companies are more willing to forgive a recent college grad, who hasn't had much experience in the working world, than they are someone who's been working for many years - which will certainly work to your advantage. If you think you're ready to give your current position the boot, the following can help you decide if you're ready to move on:

  • Is turnover high among entry- and mid-level workers? This probably points to larger organizational problems within the company.
  • Have you approached your supervisors to ask for greater responsibility? Are they responsive to your requests? If not, your company might be reluctant to challenge their employees (for whatever reason).
  • How long does the typical entry-level employee spend at his or her first position? If you see people languishing at their jobs for two years or more, it's a good sign that your company is slow to promote from within.

Before you go through with it, though, it's important to ask yourself if you're really dissatisfied with your job, or if you're still getting adjusted to the working-world timetable. When you're used to rolling out of bed around noon in college, 9 to 5 workdays can be a shock - at any job.

Finally, keep in mind that to ensure that you've given it a fair chance, three months of service is generally a minimum time requirement to spend at your first job. Also, when you're applying for a new position after just three months, it's not likely that you'll receive a higher position - most companies will hire you for a lateral position. Because you'll be reverting back to square one on the seniority scheme, make sure that you'll be doing something you think is worthwhile.

Filed Under: Job Search


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