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7 Steps to Working as a Project Manager

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What is a Project Manager?

A project manager is a professional who takes on the responsibility of a business project from start to finish. They handle all the details such as budget, time management, task assignment, team communication, and more to ensure a project is completed efficiently and effectively. Project management professionals take on a wide variety of business projects and can be found working in many different industries.

In this Article

Steps to Become a Project Manager

Explore the field.

Project management is a career that can expose you to a wide range of industries and job settings. You could use your project management education and skills on a construction site, in a large urban hospital, in the IT department of a major corporation, as the head of the marketing team for a local restaurant, and more. Project managers can find work anywhere there are large-scale tasks, or "projects" that need to be handled by a dedicated person.

For instance, a manufacturing plant that isn't producing the desired amount or quality of output might use a project manager to help them solve this issue. The PM would work with administrators and other team members to propose a strategy to increase production, then create a project plan to put that strategy into place. The job would also entail keeping the project on time and within budget. Once the plan was completed and approved, the project manager would implement the project itself. They'd oversee the project and keep track of all improvements to production. Any problems would also be up to the PM to solve.

These skills can be translated to nearly any field or industry. In fact, no matter what industry you find yourself in, project management will still be your core career. Successful project managers do not require detailed knowledge of the field in which they're working to accomplish the core goals of their role. For instance, you won't need to study cardiology as a healthcare project manager working to oversee the implementation of cardiac monitors in a hospital.

"Project managers don't have to know the technical details of the projects that they are managing," explains Dr. Nebil Buyurgan, director of the Project Management Master's Program at Missouri State University. "They are essentially enablers and requirement-gatherers in many cases."

Complete your prerequisites.

You have a few different educational options if you're pursuing a career in project management. The prerequisites will depend on the path you choose to take and on your specific school or program.

If you're pursuing an associate degree, you'll need at least a high school diploma or GED. Some schools might ask that you take a placement exam before you begin your degree.

If you're pursuing a bachelor's degree, you'll need a high school diploma, solid GPA, and strong SAT or ACT scores. The exact GPA and SAT or ACT requirements vary widely by school and some schools don't require SAT or ACT scores at all. You might also be asked for supplemental material such as an essay, interview, and letters of recommendation.

If you're pursuing a master's degree, you'll need at least an undergraduate degree from an accredited school. Master's programs are often competitive, so having a good GPA can help you gain admission. You might also need to take the GREs, submit an essay, complete an interview, and acquire letters of recommendation.

Earn your degree.

You can start your project management career with an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree. The right degree for you depends on your goals, budget, lifestyle, and other personal factors. Degree options include:

Associate Degree—There aren't associate degrees available in project management specifically. However, you can earn an associate in a similar area, such as business administration, business management, healthcare management, marketing, or construction management, and use it as a career foundation. This option is a good choice for people who want to jump into entry-level roles in project management quickly.

Bachelor's degree—A bachelor's degree is a great choice for people who want an advanced career foundation. A bachelor's degree will allow you to gain higher-level roles. It can help you quickly advance your career and may help boost your salary.

Master's degree—A master's degree is for people who want to take on large-scale project management roles. People with these degrees are prepared to take on leadership roles and the responsibility of projects at a very high level.

No matter which route you choose, it's important that you pick an accredited school and program. Accreditation shows that your school has met the requirements set by your state to deliver a high-quality education that will prepare you for your project management career. It's also the best way to make sure your credits will transfer if you ever want to change schools or advance your education. It is worth noting that only students attending accredited schools are eligible for federal financial aid. So if you're planning to use loans and grants to help pay for school, accreditation is even more important.

Get some experience.

Experience is one of the best ways to advance in any career. In project management, your experience can also help you choose a specific field or industry you'd like to focus on. For example, you might discover that you really enjoy creating employee education projects as a training and developing manager, or that you'd rather focus on data and technology projects in roles such as information technology manager or software developer.

No matter what path you choose, the experience will allow you to take on bigger projects and more responsibilities.

"An entry-level role in project management is typically titled 'project coordinator,'" says Morgan Martin, the CEO and founder of CoApt Projects, LLC. "At this level, you are focused on the execution of the project plan and making sure stakeholder requirements are met. This is a great way to break into the industry. Then once you're at the project manager level, you've really mastered the role of project facilitator."

Consider getting certified.

Certification isn't required for project managers, but it is highly recommended. Employers look for certification and many won't hire project managers without certification. Even if you're working as an independent contractor, gaining certification will help you attract clients and build your business.

"Having a project management certification sets you apart with the formal education requirements, the demonstration of comprehension, and the camaraderie of other PM professionals," Martin says.

Project managers have multiple certification options. There are certifications available at all experience and degree levels, and even certifications you can earn with a high school diploma. Certifications are also offered in specialties and for specific industries. These certifications can help show you've mastered skills such as software development and implementation.

Maintain your certification.

Most certifications have renewal requirements you'll need to meet every few years in order to keep your certification active. Generally, certifications have between a two to five year renewal period. The exact requirements will vary depending on the certification you've earned, but you can count on:

• Submitting a renewal form
• Paying a fee
• Completing a set number of continuing education hours
• Showing proof you've continued to work as a project manager

Level up!

There's room to grow in project management. You can use your experience and certification along with your education to advance your career and take on larger challenges.

"There are always opportunities for growth by taking on a larger number of projects, projects with a bigger budget or impact level, or projects that require deeper technical expertise," Martin says.
If you want to take your career even further, advancing your education is a great way to get started. You can move from an associate degree to a bachelor's degree or a bachelor's degree to a master's degree. Your higher degree and more in-depth knowledge can help you take on even larger scale roles, boost your career, and potentially increase your paycheck.

"Some project managers do choose to (advance) into program manager or portfolio manager roles," explains Martin. "As a program manager, you would take on a group of projects that are structured similarly such as by industry niche. As a portfolio manager, you would have oversight of multiple projects that are related by client or organization type."

How Long Does a Project Management Program Take?

The time it takes to earn your degree depends on the educational path you take. Factors such as any previous education, your specific program, and whether you attend school full or part-time can also make a difference. In general project manager degrees can be completed in:

Associate Degree—Two years

Bachelor's Degree—Four years

Master's Degree—Two to three years in addition to a bachelor's degree

Is 'Project Management' the Same as 'Product Management'?

The names may be similar, but the jobs are very different. Product managers take on an "overseer" type of role, setting the vision for a product (or products) that is being built, while project managers execute that vision by making sure a specific project is delivered on time and on budget. Product managers are typically strategic thinkers with a good grasp of business principles, while project managers excel at communicating, leading teams, and creating project timelines.

Project Management Methodologies

Without a solid game plan, a project—especially a complex one with multiple stakeholders—can easily become derailed. That's why project managers typically rely on specific proven methodologies: principles that help keep a project on time, on budget, and running smoothly.

Project managers determine the methodology they use based on a number of factors, including the cost and budget of the project, the size of the team, the flexibility allowed (does the project need to be carefully managed or can the team take some risks?), the amount of time allocated, and how closely the stakeholder and team are working together.

There are dozens of project methodologies used by project managers. Some of the most common include:

  • Waterfall. This methodology breaks down a project into phases, visually resembling the flow of a waterfall. Each phase of the project (such as the design, the development, and the testing) is completed fully before the team moves onto the next phase.
  • Agile. Continuous collaboration defines the agile method, which divides a project into several phases. It allows a team to revise a project as much as necessary during the process instead of waiting until the project is complete to make changes.
  • Scrum. This method is a type of agile project management. Teams divide work into cycles, often called sprints, which usually last between one and three weeks. At the end of each sprint, the team reviews the work and its approach as a group, allowing for changes and improvements to the process before moving on to the next sprint.
  • Kanban. Also an agile approach, the Kanban method uses a visualization process in which tasks are pulled from a backlog into columns on a Kanban board. Teams work on projects as capacity allows, and the board helps to visually surface the tasks that may be moving slowly or creating a bottleneck in the project management process.
  • Lean. This methodology has its roots in the manufacturing industry with the goal of minimizing waste and maximizing value. Project managers focus on streamlining processes and creating more efficient workflows.
  • Critical path. The critical path method helps determine the duration of a project schedule. It helps managers zero in on the specific jobs or tasks that are most critical for the timely delivery of the project and helps them schedule these tasks in order to meet a target deadline most efficiently.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an average job growth through 2032 for project management specialists, citing a 6.2% increase in jobs in the field (the national average for all jobs if 5%). However, a job growth study commissioned by the Project Management Institute (PMI), a not-for-profit professional organization for project managers, shows that the project management-oriented labor force is expected to grow by 33% in several sectors (including manufacturing, information services, finance/insurance, and management/professional services) through 2027.

Between 2017 and 2027, the PMI study indicates that employers will be looking for more than 88 million workers to fill project management roles in countries throughout the world. As opportunities are growing, the report says, much of the available talent is reaching retirement age, resulting in a particularly rosy job outlook for project managers just entering the industry.

Is This Job Right for Me?

Project management is a great fit for people who are highly organized with outstanding communication skills. Skills such as leadership, crisis management, and the ability to work well with a team are also signs project management could be the job for you. Since project managers are needed just about everywhere, you can take those skills and your project management education into almost any field you might be interested in.

The PMI details a number of skills personality traits that make certain project managers exceptional leaders. Such candidates are able to:

  • Understand the objectives of a project and clearly communicate them to others
  • Facilitate a comfortable balance between the needs and demands of customers, team members, and project stakeholders
  • Trust their own instincts to make decisions, often while under pressure
  • Delegate responsibilities and empower their team members
  • Stay motivated amidst adversity

Since project managers are needed just about everywhere, you can take those skills and your project management education into almost any field you might be interested in.

"The great thing about a career in project management is that it is a multidisciplinary field, says Martin. "You can couple project management expertise with virtually any other career track—nonprofit, government relations, international business, accounting—you name it."

stephanie behring

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer

nebil buyurgan

With professional insight from:

Dr. Nebil Buyurgan

Director, Project Management Master's Program, Missouri State University

morgan martin

Morgan Martin, PMP, MPA, CEBS

CEO and Founder, CoApt Projects, LLC

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