This career advice post originally appears in my Work In Progress column for Forbes.com:
As a career coach, I talk to a lot of people who are dissatisfied with their job for a variety of reasons – pay isn’t competitive, work imposes too much on personal life, skills are stagnating, interest in the work has waned, etc. How do you know if you should try to make things work where you are or go elsewhere? There is really only one good reason to quit your job: you should quit your job when quitting is the next step to a better life. For many of the common job complaints, quitting typically isn’t the ideal response.
If you feel underpaid
Quitting your job will not make your life better in the short term. You will be even more underpaid, as your salary drops to zero. Your market value also drops, as you have less leverage with future employers now that you’re unemployed. A better solution would be to research your true market value and try both to negotiate a raise where you are and to find an alternative higher offer. You may need to quit eventually for that better paying job, but get the new job first.
If you feel undervalued
Decide first what would represent the appreciation you are seeking – is it words of praise, is it a promotion, is it a raise? Quitting your job will not satisfy any of these conditions, as you don’t give your employer the opportunity to demonstrate its appreciation. A better solution would be to ask for what you want. Your boss may not realize you feel undervalued. You also want to make sure your boss understands your value and what you have recently accomplished.
If you no longer enjoy the work
Quitting your job will take you out of the work you don’t enjoy but it also ends whatever part of your job you still did enjoy. Furthermore, if finding another more enjoyable job is what you really want to do, quitting your job doesn’t immediately help you there and in fact might hinder your search as employers prefer the currently employed. A better solution would be to pinpoint exactly what you do enjoy and try both to arrange your current job to include more of this and to find an alternative more enjoyable workplace. Sometimes an employee is so unhappy that she can’t successfully find another job amidst all the negativity. In this case, quitting your job is a necessary interim step to a better attitude which leads to the better job and life. I’ve seen people quit without a job and still do well, but it carries the risk that the stress of looking for a job might lead to even more negativity.
If you are no longer challenged
You may need to quit your job eventually to get a more challenging job, but you also may find more challenge in the same company by moving to a different group or changing your role. You could also find more challenge outside your immediate job by taking a class or stepping up your role in a professional organization. If you determine the next ideal challenge requires returning to school or other extended preparation, then quitting your job might be a necessary step to better preparation to a better life.
If the environment (your boss, colleagues, company culture) no longer fits
You might be able to move elsewhere in the company. You might experiment with building relationships outside of work and seeing if this is enough. But we spend a lot of our waking hours in our work environment, so if you are unable to make a change where you are, quitting your job and moving elsewhere could yield a significant life improvement.
If your values feel out of alignment
If your employer engages in behavior you don’t believe in (it doesn’t have to be illegal but let’s say it’s a competitive, cut throat atmosphere and you expected a more collaborative environment), then you have to decide if this value is something you’ll learn to deprioritize or if you need to go elsewhere. You don’t have to right away, and burn your bridges. Hold onto your job while you conduct your search
If your work/ life balance feels out of alignment
Quitting your job may tip the scales too far in the other direction! As with the enjoyment, the challenge and the appreciation factors, first decide exactly how you define work/ life balance. Is it being able to telecommute? Is it changing the start or end times of your day? Is it being able to have weekends away from email and phone? See if you can change your current situation and look at alternatives elsewhere. It might be that your industry or role doesn’t lend itself to the work/ life balance you now seek, and you have to focus on a bigger career change, not just change employers. Or it might be that a small tweak where you are will be enough of a change.
If you get an unexpected offer elsewhere
Don’t just stay out of loyalty. Don’t just quit because you’re flattered. Determine how you would define your ideal next step, both professionally and personally, and weigh your unexpected offer against the prospects exactly where you are.
There are many reasons why you might be dissatisfied with your current situation. But, before you quit, ask yourself if the reasons for your dissatisfaction will actually be cured if you quit your job. Quitting your job could very well be an excellent response to a bad career situation. More likely, it is several steps away from what you need to do right now. Sometimes, it is even unnecessary, and your energy spent on quitting could be better used to improve your situation right where you are. Instead of asking yourself whether you should quit (or fantasizing about how you’ll quit!), ask yourself what the very next step is that you can take right now. The only good reason to quit is to improve your immediate situation. Before you quit, research how you can improve your situation further. Focus on how to improve the overall situation, not whether or not you should quit.