Fast Track: Fight off the first-job blues

You may have been drawn to your first job by money or the glamour of a big name, but if you discover your work simply doesn't suit you, how do you know when to walk?
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The Independent Culture
"One should always have one's boots on, and be ready to leave," advised the 16th-century French writer, Montaigne. Applying this maxim to your working life may appear to be taking things to extremes. But since the latest Graduate Survey by Universum reveals that almost 30 per cent of students plan on working for their first employer for no more than three years - and only 25 per cent plan on staying for four years or more - it could be more appropriate than you think.

Emma Taylor, director of Graduate Appointments, regularly sees graduates who have been caught in the wrong career. Uncertain of what a job entails, drawn in by the promise of good pay, the security of a milk-round offer or the glamour of a big name, they find themselves, one or two years down the line, deeply dissatisfied. "Some graduates go for the name of an organisation, rather than a role," she adds. "Their friends say, `Wow, you're working for such-and-such company' but they're using skills they never wanted to use and they're not happy."

Alexis Hallam, an occupational psychologist whose clients include graduates, agrees. "They go for the stereotype of what is a glamorous or successful career, but often after a year they're suffering anxiety and panic when they wake up."

In fact, she says, those who have been mismatched in their first choice of career usually find this happening by the end of the first year. The warning signs, she says, are often there before graduates have even accepted the job. But because they are so keen to get work and then become so busy, graduates seldom take the time to assess what motivates them and what their real interests, aptitudes and values are.

The good news is that there are solutions. There is a chance, for instance, that you simply need to brush up on your political skills. "You can have graduates who are very bright but have no political and communication skills," explains Alexis Hallam. "They don't know how to manage their careers constructively and to get more of what is good and eliminate what is bad."

Angela Barron, of the Institute of Personnel and Development, suggests: "Before you just up and leave, talk to someone. You have to be careful to give the job a fair trial." Most bosses will be willing to listen if you are seeking solutions to your problems rather than just moaning.

So how do you recognise when the remedy of the last resort - resigning - is required? There are certain symptoms, says Alexis Hallam which, if they persist for longer than a few weeks, you should take as signs.

You might, for instance, find yourself dreading work every Monday, haunted by it at weekends. Alternatively, the objectives you set out with, such as salary or promotion, may not have manifested themselves and look unlikely to. Lack of formal feedback or an appraisal system should also ring alarm bells, particularly if this is added to your own lack of passion or satisfaction for your work. If you are under-performing but no one has noticed; you know you are under-performing and you do not care; or you know you are not up to the job yet you are bright and able, you should also take a long, hard look at your situation.

"People need to try and recognise these danger signs early," cautions Hallam. "Otherwise you can find yourself in a cul-de-sac for a long time, and that is when people have serious crises. It can lead to a very unhealthy situation and it erodes your self-esteem."

Patrick Evans, a 26-year-old account manager for Simply Internet, is a case in point. After leaving university, he got a job at a large publishing house as an editorial assistant. "I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do," he admits, "so I went into publishing because I loved books. But I soon found that it wasn't for me. I wasn't being properly motivated or challenged, I found I couldn't get out of bed in the mornings and I'd pull sickies because I couldn't face it." After nine months, he left with no job to go to, but he hasn't looked back. "Now I'm working with lots of young people, in the industry of the Nineties. The company's doing really well and I love it."

Indeed, while throwing in the towel can be daunting, the mechanics of moving to job number two or three are much easier than securing your first job. For one thing, you have a better idea of the job you want to do. There are hundreds of recruitment agencies that can help, whereas there are very few that deal with new, inexperienced graduates.

Nor should you worry about how the job change will look on your CV. "Employers are not judgmental," insists Emma Taylor. "They are very interested in meeting people who have been in the commercial world for a couple of years. They tend to see the first job as general work experience. Companies do not discriminate against people who decide to change their mind. Although it can be more difficult to move after five years, it's still OK."

But remember that sacrifices often have to be made. If you are starting again in a new career, be prepared to take a drop in salary and position, for instance. After all, says Emma Taylor, you often make up for the drop in two or three years.

If you enjoy your post and simply want to wangle yourself a better deal, however, think twice about waving another job offer in your boss's face and threatening to defect unless your conditions are met: at worst, your bluff may be called and you could lose a job you enjoy; at best, your boss will feel blackmailed and may regard you as uncommitted and disloyal. A more subtle and effective approach is to research the average salary for your position and emphasise that, while you want to stay, you feel you deserve the market rate.

When you do decide to move - whatever your reasons - it pays to be professional and diplomatic. "The business world isn't big. There are lots of contacts and everyone knows somebody," stresses Emma Taylor. In addition, you will need to retain your boss's good will if you want to get a decent reference from them. Tempting as it might be to stalk out, Rhett-Butler style, not giving a damn that you are leaving chaos in your wake, or to tell your soon-to-be-ex colleagues exactly what you think of them, you can only suffer in the long run. Perhaps Montaigne's advice should be updated for today's job market: "When you put your boots on, do not put the boot in."