How to become a project manager? This guide answers all your questions about becoming a project manager and landing a great job.
Great pay, exciting work, unlimited growth opportunities - does this sound like an ideal career to you?
If yes, then you should consider becoming a project manager.
A project manager manages, well, projects. They’re the go-to people for getting work done in any kind of project-based organization (which is most organizations). Construction companies have project managers, as do marketing agencies and tech startups.
Project managers handle a ton of responsibilities. And consequently, they need to have a ton of different skills. From planning and forecasting to communication and leadership, a project manager has to wear many hats.
How do you get a start in this exciting and lucrative career? What are the career paths for a project manager? What’s the process to become a project manager?
I’ll share detailed answers in this guide.
What Does a Project Manager Do?
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Let’s start with the basics first:
What is a project manager and what does she do?
To answer this question, you have to first understand the meaning of a “project” within an organization.
A project, as defined by PMI - the largest organization of project managers in the world - is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”.
For any undertaking to be defined as a project, it has to be:
- Temporary, i.e. it has a defined start and end time, and thus, limited scope and resource requirements
- Unique, i.e. it is not a routine operation but a specific set of operations designed to achieve a single goal
Think of things you do around the house. Buying milk and bread is not a project - it is something you do every weekend. Building a new coffee table, however, is a project - it uses limited resources and will be done just once or twice in your lifetime.
A project manager, thus, is the person tasked with planning and managing this unique and temporary endeavor. Think of her as the leader who assembles a team to meet a goal.
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Project Manager Responsibilities
As the person tasked with handling the project from start to finish, the project manager has a lot on her hands. From creating a plan to assembling the team, everything goes through the project manager.
While exact responsibilities will vary from project to project and organization to organization, some of their duties include:
- Develop a vision for the project
- Create an execution strategy, aka a “project plan”
- Define the project’s key deliverables and requirements
- Organize the project into tasks
- Assemble a team and assign them different tasks
- Monitor the project’s performance
- Facilitate communication across the team
- Manage the project’s budget
- Manage the handover of the project upon completion
You might be tasked with different duties based on your industry or company. If you’re a marketing agency project manager, for instance, you might be tasked with talking to the client as well. In the construction industry, this job might be handled by the contractor or architect.
A good way to understand project manager responsibilities is to go through job ads on sites like Workamajobs. This will tell you the real-world requirements and duties of a successful project manager.
For instance, these are some of the responsibilities for a senior project manager at Mastercard:
Since this particular job focuses on internal Mastercard projects, it doesn’t have much emphasis on stakeholder management.
Contrast it with this job description for a project manager at a marketing agency:
This role involves much more client interaction simply by virtue of its industry.
Why Become a Project Manager?
If you’re completely new to project management, the responsibilities listed above might very well be just gibberish to you.
It’s natural to ask at this point: why bother with becoming a project manager?
While the pay is great (and I’ll cover that in a second), there are more inspiring reasons than money alone to get into project management.
But first, let’s cover the basics.
How Much Do Project Managers Make?
Project manager salaries vary based on location, experience, and industry. Salaries are higher in industries with lots of money - such as the tech industries. They also tend to be higher if you hold professional degrees or certifications like the PMP (we’ll come to this later).
Different sources have different figures for average and median project manager salaries, however. Collating all the data, we have this table:
Though the data varies depending on the source, it is safe to say that project managers make good money.
Keep in mind that most stats online only include base salary. Project managers frequently work in prestigious, competitive industries and companies. Their bonuses, perks, and benefits also tend to be substantial.
Needless to say, as a project manager, you will be comfortable.
In fact, Indeed’s survey even found that more than 2/3rd of project managers are happy with their salaries.
5 Reasons to Become a Project Manager
Project manager salaries, as you saw above, are great.
But the perks of a career in this field go beyond good pay. You’ll work in elite businesses, cover a range of activities, and learn the ins and outs of management.
Some of the top reasons to become a project manager are:
- Cross-domain learning: Effective project management balances the “soft” skills of communication and leadership with the “hard” skills of finance and planning. A career as a project manager will give you a well-rounded, cross-domain understanding of every aspect of work.
- Demand across multiple industries: Want to build houses, develop software, and manage a TV ad campaign? As a project manager, your skills will be equally applicable across all these industries - and more.
- Career growth potential: As a project manager, you handle a “profit” center for businesses - projects. It is also easy for you to demonstrate your skills with hard numbers (from successful projects). This makes project managers prime targets for senior executive-level positions.
- Entrepreneurship-focused: A project is like a mini startup. You ask for resources from a sponsor (i.e. your “venture capitalist”), gather a team (i.e. your “co-founders”) and set to deliver a finished product. If you ever want to build a business of your own, this project management experience will be invaluable.
- Colleagues and companies: Project management is a science. The companies that adopt it are usually among the most professionally run in their industries. Such companies also tend to have highly skilled employees. Needless to say, as a project manager, you will be in good company.
More than anything, perhaps, the biggest reason to become a project manager is simply because it’s fun. You’ll be delegating tasks, talking to clients, dealing with resources - it’s busy but exciting work.
If that sounds like your cup of tea, then read on.
How to Become a Project Manager
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A project manager’s brief is truly vast. You’ll plan, delegate, lead, communicate - all at the same time.
Given the breadth of your duties, there are very few programs that can teach you everything you need to know. Very, very few universities offer Bachelor’s degrees in project management. Most university-level programs are at the Master’s level.
Most project managers, thus, end up either learning on the job or acquiring formal certifications to level up their project management skills.
Essentially, there are two paths to becoming a project manager: formal and informal.
A Formal Path to Becoming a Project Manager
This path to project management means studying the subject in some fixed, formal capacity. This can be in the form of a degree (at the undergraduate or graduate level), going through an apprenticeship, or earning a certificate.
A formal path is expensive but comes with a strong promise of a project management job. You can also expect to be armed with a solid understanding of core PM principles.
A downside is that you won’t learn the soft skills necessary to be a successful project manager. Leadership and communication are both better learned in the field than in the classroom.
On the whole, the formal path has both advantages and disadvantages:
- Fixed curriculum and structured learning
- Better job opportunities, especially from reputed programs
- Some jobs ask for certifications or degrees (especially PMP)
- Expensive - both in terms of money and opportunity cost
- Less attention to soft skills
- Lack of reputed programs on project management
If you decide to go down this path, you can either choose from a university degree (Bachelor’s, Master’s, or online) or a certification.
Formal University Programs
Despite its dominance in the workplace, universities haven’t truly tackled project management in a formal capacity. There are very few Bachelor in Project Management programs. You have more options at the Master’s level, but most of these programs are MBA-level and command similar fees.
There are a lot of options if you opt for an online degree but these don’t have nearly the same prestige as a full-fledged university program.
You effectively have three options to choose from:
Bachelor’s degrees in project management are almost non-existent, especially in full-time, reputed universities. This makes sense given the focus of the discipline. You’re expected to manage and lead people - something undergraduates are not fully equipped to do.
Most programs at the Bachelor’s level are online. This isn’t really recommended for most students because of cost and accreditation issues.
That said, if you do want to explore these programs, here are a few you can check out:
- City University of Seattle - BS in Project Management
- Colorado State University - Bachelor in Project Management
- American Intercontinental University - BBA in Project Management
Most formal project management programs are at the graduate level. These come in two broad flavors:
- Master of Science: MS programs in project management tend to focus on specific industries such as IT or construction. These are a good fit for people with extensive experience in the industry who want to move into management roles.
- Master of Business Administration: MBA programs tend to be general-purpose MBAs with a focus on project management. Such programs are more versatile and better suited for people who want a managerial career regardless of industry.
Whether an MS or MBA is right for you will depend on your experience. MS programs tend to be more technical and are better suited if you’ve worked in a technically-focused industry.
On the other hand, MBA programs are better suited for anyone who wants a managerial career.
There are more Master’s programs in project management than I can reasonably include here. However, some of the top ones include:
- Boston University
- Georgetown University
- George Washington University
- Northeastern University
A new trend in project management education is the emergence of online programs, certifications, and “micro” degrees.
These programs are usually offered by online learning platforms like Coursera and EdX, often in collaboration with established universities. They aim to give you the structured learning of a degree program but without the cost or time commitment.
Some options in this segment include:
This is still an emerging field; watch this space for more options.
Certificates are, by far, the most popular formal path to becoming a project manager. In fact, some jobs will even ask for a certificate, especially the ever-popular Project Management Practitioner (PMP).
Certificates are less about learning and more about experience as a project manager. To qualify as a PMP, for instance, you need at least 5 years of experience leading projects (3 years if you have an undergraduate degree).
As with most certificates, getting one is only worthwhile if it is recognized by the industry. The more mainstream and popular the certificate, the better for your career.
Some of the top project management certificates include:
- Project Management Practitioner (PMP), issued by PMI (Project Management Institute)
- PMI Agile Certificate Practitioner (PMI-ACP)
- Certified Associate in Project Management
- Certified Scrum Master
If you have existing experience in project management, certificates can be the official seal that validates the experience.
This brings up an obvious question: how do you earn experience in project management?
Which brings us to the second path in our journey to become project managers.
The Informal Path to a Project Management Career
Although a lot of universities offer Master’s level programs in project management, formal education is still the exception, not the norm.
Ask any project manager and 9 times out of 10, they’ll tell you that they just “fell into” their roles.
That’s the trajectory for most PMs. They start out as subject matter experts, get handed some managerial reins, and slowly expand their range of responsibilities to become project managers.
How do you start off on this informal path?
Let’s find some answers.
Separate Hard Skills and Soft Skills
Project management is interesting in that it requires both hard and soft skills. Lack in either of these departments and your prospects of becoming a project manager diminish.
Some of these core skills include:
- Time and cost estimation
- Managing a project budget
- Breaking down a project into deliverables and tasks (such as a WBS)
- Task management
- Project planning
- Risk management
- Technical skills such as Excel, project management software, etc.
- Team building (read our guide here)
- People management
Demonstrate Competence and Experience
You might have all the skills a recruiter wants in a project manager, but do you have any way to prove it?
Being able to demonstrate competence is a key part of landing a project management role. Your work experience should show that you have both the hard and soft skills necessary to excel.
Comb through your resume. Are you showcasing your experience in a way that aligns with project management requirements?
Maybe you worked on an informal project in your last job where you created a communication plan to keep everyone in the loop. Or maybe you started a side venture that involved managing dozens of freelancers.
In either of these cases, your goal should be to translate this experience into project management-friendly terms. Focus on how your experience helped you master communication (both formally and informally). Or how it helped you delegate tasks and build a team.
This can be outside of work as well. Winning a regional frisbee tournament can be as good a demonstration of leadership and team building skills as a work project.
Get Your Foot in the Door
The informal path to a project management career depends on adding to your skills incrementally.
To do this, you first need to get a job that, if not in project management, is affiliated to the field.
Think of sectors where project managers abound such as IT, marketing agencies, construction, etc. It’s not uncommon for a person to join an agency as a copywriter, graduate to managing a team of copywriters, and finally becoming a project manager.
Once you get your foot in the door, go through the list of hard and soft skills I shared above. Aggressively add these skills to your portfolio.
The more you can demonstrate these skills, the better your chances of landing a project management gig.
Master Project Management Software
Most serious project management roles will require you to use some project management software.
In the creative industry, for instance, tools like Workamajig are common. Some jobs, in fact, will even ask for specific PM software experience:
Such experience can be crucial in swinging a job opportunity your way, so get learning!
Speaking of project management software, did you know that you can get a free demo of Workamajig? Just hit the link below and get your own personalized demo of Workamajig - for yourself or for your agency!