Over the course of your career, when should you take a step back and consider the safer road, and when should you take a leap of faith and move to a new position?

These two questions tend to pop up a few years after landing your first “real” – not summer internship or school jobs – job. Most entry-level employees start at the bottom and work their way up the ranks. You have to learn new skills, gain valuable on-the-job training and grow your experience first. As time goes on however, it can often become difficult to determine if you have learned what you need in order to advance, or if should you stay a little while longer. Here’s some key advice to consider when you’re determining whether it’s time to move on or stay awhile longer at your first job. [TWEET]

Your first job after college often isn’t your dream job.

It’s a starting point on the board game of life. First jobs are great for learning valuable skills like what it means to be a team player. You learn from the industry’s best minds (hopefully) and take those experiences with you on the road to your dream career. Think of your first job as an extension of college. Professors teach you the skills and techniques necessary to enter your desired field. First jobs teach you how to apply those techniques in the “real world.”

There’s no golden rule stating how long you should stay at your first job, just don’t wait until you’re grey and wrinkled to find something better.

Pay your dues.

As a young and hungry first-time employee, it’s not uncommon to want to rush and get ahead of the game. However, these tendencies can keep team members stuck in lower-earning positions and dreary jobs. You simply have to “pay your dues.” Everyone starts out small and has to work menial positions. Don’t aim for your boss’s chair until you’ve earned the right to sit in it.

Likewise, hiring managers cringe when new hires leave a company quickly. To some, it shows that you never intended to learn the ropes and instead used them as a stepping-stone to a better job. Don’t make this fatal mistake. Not only will it burn bridges you may need later in life, it’s rude and distasteful. Recruiters recommend staying at your first job after college for at least a year before making any big changes. Rather than rush to enter the race, take the time to learn from others in your field. Talk to your supervisor and learn from their wisdom. Volunteer for tasks no one wants. You most likely won’t regret these actions down the road.

Be realistic.

New graduates tend to make one common mistake: they’re unrealistic about the first five years of their career. Students leave college thinking they’ll take on the world, move up the ranks within a few years and open their own corporation. Reality check – it is seldom that easy. Becoming an industry leader takes time. Not only do you have to build a solid reputation, competition is fierce.

Look for big opportunities at your first job.

If you find that your first job after college offers some great benefits, it might be worth staying long term. Does the company offer sabbatical or “meternity” after working several years? Are stock options available? Some benefits are worth the wait.

Some companies have a high turnover rate. Look for trends in supervisor roles. If you work hard and learn the ropes, you may be able to earn a promotion faster than at other companies. Just be warned: high turnover rates can be a red flag. Ask questions and learn why so many team members leave.

Keep compatibility in mind.

Sometimes the job just isn’t a good fit. Team leaders may expect employees to take on unreasonable workloads. The job description may not have accurately reflected the position. Or the overall environment may not be conducive to a positive workflow. Give it at least three months. If you still feel it isn’t a good fit, start looking for a new position.

What if you leave before your first year is finished?

While staying at a job for at least one year is usually the minimum suggested, remember that this is not a concrete rule. There are times when you can – and should – move on to better opportunities. If you tried everything in your power to make it work and just couldn’t, or maybe you got a better offer, what’s next? If you decide to leave your position before one year is up, it is advised to try and stay at your next job for at least two to three years. Leaving the second job early establishes a negative pattern. It sends the message you aren’t committed to the job or, worse, cause problems within the team. You don’t want hiring managers to get the wrong impression.

Just remember, if it’s been less than a year, write a thank you note to the hiring manager, your supervisor and head of your department. Tell them you appreciate everything you learned from them and how they made it possible for you to advance in the industry. This goes a long way in preventing hurt feelings or resentment for leaving early.

Once you decide to leave your first job before the year is out, leave gracefully; don’t tell the boss or other team members how you really feel. Keep up appearances and treat everyone with respect and decency. It’s easy to burn bridges. Seldom do we find methods to rebuild them.

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