While sometimes your work situation gets to the point where it's obvious you need to move on, in many cases whether you should quit or not is debatable. You may be unhappy, underpaid, or just looking to do something else, but you're not that miserable, the money's not that bad, and you know that the grass is not always greener.
Of course, with unemployment at 4.3%, its lowest level in around a decade, it's tempting to think finding a new job will be easy. That may be true, but it's certainly not universal. Even when the signs are there that you should quit your job, it's important to take a rational approach to the situation, even if taking an emotional one would feel better in the short term.
One key fact
The old maxim that it's easier to get a job when you have a job has been proven by a study from economists at Columbia University and the Federal Reserve banks of New York and Chicago. They looked at the job-seeking efforts of 2,900 people 18-64 (not including the self-employed) and "found that employed people get all the breaks."
They were more likely to receive an unsolicited contact from a potential employer or a referral from a contact. Their response rate from employers was four times that of unemployed applicants. They got more than twice the interviews and three times as many offers per application.
Because of that, it's important to consider whether it's really worth quitting your job before you have a new one in place. Unless your work situation has become dangerous, it's generally best to stick with an unpleasant work situation while you search for a way out.
When do you just quit?
In some cases you're not simply looking to quit a job -- you're trying to switch careers. If that requires schooling you can't complete while working, it may be OK to just quit, but even then you have to examine your situation.
The most important thing to do is figure out how you will pay your bills and cover the cost of your education while unemployed. Remember that workers who quit do not receive unemployment, so you'll need to take an honest look at your finances. Budget not only the time you will be in school, but figure that it will take time to find a job after that.
If the numbers don't match up it may make more sense to stick with your job or even get a second one in order to save. It's OK to plan a more modest lifestyle while making a career switch, but think living someplace cheaper, not sleeping in your car.
It's OK to bet on you
If you have a decent financial cushion -- think six months of living expenses -- sometimes you just have to take the plunge. There was a point in my career about six years ago when I ran a giant toy store. I made good money, worked for a man I like and respect, and things were generally going well.
The problem is that retail left no room for writing. I thought I would run the store and write books on the side, but that never materialized. So, a little bit after the Christmas season, I sat with the owner and gave notice. I had no plan, no income, and really nothing beyond faith in myself, as well as the knowledge that I was supposed to be doing something else.
That started a painful transition. I freelanced, did part-time public relations, and bounced around quite a bit before getting hired in an editorial position by a now-defunct local news operation. Eventually, taking that leap led me to fulfill my childhood dream of working at The Boston Globe, and then it landed me my current, blissful existence as contract writer at Motley Fool.
Be logical, but believe
In most cases you should be rational and play the odds. But as my example shows, if you're willing to do whatever it takes to pay the bills in order to get someplace better, then you should. Quitting is never easy when you don't have another job lined up, and doing it almost certainly means a longer road, but it can work out if you're willing to put the work in.