Career Advice

Why You Should Always Be Looking for a Job

Melissa McCartney

If you’ve just landed your first job, it can be tempting to get comfortable with the idea that you’ll be settled in for years to come. The beginning is always exciting and can be fulfilling for quite some time, but the fact is your tenure is full of uncertainty. Jobs pose many challenges, and other opportunities are always out there. You never know when it will be time to make a change. Will you be ready when that time comes?  I think the best time to look for a new job is when you are content with the one you have.

But when you are happily employed in a job that you enjoy, why would you invest time in looking at other options? One reason is that surveying job openings lets you regularly reassess your career goals and stay current with available opportunities in your field. Plus, looking for a new job can be a full-time job in itself, especially when you are under time pressure to find one. A no-stress job search while in your current job will allow you to calmly keep tabs on the job market.

Think about it: The pressure is off, you feel no desperation, and the world is your oyster.

To be clear, there is a difference between being open to a new position and actually switching jobs. Surveying possible opportunities doesn’t mean you have to leave your current position. Staying in a “job-search mode” in the back of your mind simply means that you’re taking control of your career by vigilantly preparing for your next stepping-stone to learning new skills, building new connections, exploring new areas of interest, and earning more money.

There are major advantages to seeking out new opportunities and laying the groundwork for your next career move even when you have no real desire to switch jobs. Here is an example from my own path. When I learned about the open position of Vice President of Professional Development for my local chapter of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), searching for jobs was in the back of my mind.  I was interested in adding more professional development to my life. I figured that this position would definitely deliver that. Now, a decade later, my original interest in professional development has led to my education research laboratory’s investigation into how to develop and implement professional development opportunities for undergraduate STEM students. (Thanks for the inspiration, SfN!)

Here are some of the top reasons why you should follow my lead and get into a job-searching state of mind.

1. An ongoing job search will help you clarify what you want and, more importantly, what you don’t want. I challenge you to consider that the best way to truly nurture your career and make it what you want it to be is to continually reevaluate where you want to go. Think about where you were when you graduated from college. What were your career goals then, and are they the same now? Most likely, they have shifted. As you have grown as a person and as a professional, your interests and values have probably shifted. As you gained experience in your field, you learned more about the parts that inspired you and also what discouraged you. This kind of changing perspective will happen throughout your career, so think about learning how to harness your evolving outlook now. Some questions you might consider asking yourself before conducting any job search include:

  • What types of positions will match my current interests and values?
  • What benefits and opportunities do I need from a company that will help me expand my skills, transition into higher positions, and become a better professional?
  • What types of positions offer the salary, benefits, and work–life balance (including geographical location) options I need to support my growing needs and those of my family?

Knowing the career landscape in your field illuminates possibilities and will help you better assess what you want for yourself. Taking a holistic approach to considering new job options can also help relieve any confusion or anxiety about your next career step.

2. Engaging in a job search reminds colleagues in your field that you are out there and that you are ambitious! Reaching out for clarification of a job description is a great way to keep your communication and networking skills sharp, and it could lead to the expansion of your network. Even though you might not apply for the job in question, interacting with others in your field of interest might encourage them to reach out to you when an even better job becomes available. In this way, you start to crowd-source your own career development.

In addition, actively networking could lead to your learning about synergistic opportunities or establishing new collaborations. Learning how other institutions handle similar job functions may inspire you to bring some changes back home to your own position. In this way, engaging in proactive behavior concerning your career progression may make you even better at your current position. Being a better employee certainly places you in control of your current success, and most likely your future success, too.

3. Knowing your own value. Seeing what other jobs are out there, and what salary and benefits they offer, is the best way to understand your own value as an employee and the best way to be prepared for salary negotiation when you do take the step of applying for a new job. I am getting ready to submit my tenure packet in the Fall of 2022. I am not ready to leave my current institution, and I hope to stay for a while (with tenure!). However, I know that this is likely to be the only time I will be able to negotiate my contract, including my time allocations among research, teaching, and service; my salary; and other work–life balance issues. Understanding the options I have professionally and being able to state my desired terms, backed up with examples and data for other positions like mine, will allow me to confidently negotiate from a place of knowledge.  

4. The only constant in any career is that change will happen. You might get along great with your current boss, but what if your boss decides to take a new position? What if your company is acquired, or goes through a reorganization, and your existing position is eliminated? What if a global pandemic shifts all of our traditional views of work and the workplace?

Eventually, change of some type will arrive in your workplace. Will you be ready for it? Will you be able to adapt and carry on, or will you need to reevaluate and move on? The answers to these questions are going to be different at any point in your career path. Being actively engaged in job searching, and having a grasp of the different options you will have as well as the different directions your career could take, will allow you to be prepared when the inevitable change does come. Essentially, understanding the career landscape around you places you in control of both your career options and your job-search trajectory. When it comes to adapting to change, we can all agree that it is preferable to be in a place of knowledge rather than in a state of confusion and anxiety.

5. It is unlikely you will be in your current position until you retire. Aside from the inevitable changes discussed above, there are other reasons why you may change jobs. Although different sources list different numbers, millennials spend approximately three years on average in one position and face few repercussions for switching jobs at this pace. With this pattern becoming the norm, staying in the same position long-term may eventually work against you. For example, salary increases tend to be greater when you change positions by moving to another company than when you are internally promoted. In addition, your skill set may become stagnant in the same position, whereas a job switch could invigorate it. Finally, consider this: Someone in your field, perhaps an individual you admire, got where they are today by holding various positions, learning different skills, and maybe even changing disciplines. Will you get where you want to be by staying in your current position?

I am not advocating that everyone change jobs every three years. But I am encouraging you to stay permanently engaged with a job search so that when the time is right for you to consider a change, you can do so with a thorough understanding of your field and its possibilities. Once again, it is better to consider big changes from a place of knowledge rather than from one of confusion and anxiety.

The benefits from a low-stress job search are vast, and they constitute a worthwhile career advancement strategy. Don’t forget to have some fun in your exploration. Remember, you don't have to leave your current job. You can engage in the application process as much or as little as you want to. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by getting out there, gathering information, networking, and possibly going on interviews if you are, in fact, ready to make a move. All you need to do right now is take it step-by-step, keep those résumés and cover letters updated, and reflect on all the new knowledge you are gaining.

A low-key job search will take some time; however, consider this time well spent as an investment in your future career. At a minimum, an ongoing job search will expose you to new companies and institutions, new opportunities, and new colleagues. And, as discussed, these interactions could potentially help you in your current position, a nice bonus for your investment of time. What is more likely, and more valuable, is that these interactions will lay the groundwork for your future career moves. Either way, you have a lot to gain from a low-key job search, most importantly the knowledge of how to navigate what comes next.