How to Become a Project Manager

A degree is a great place to start if you want to become a project manager, but there are many considerations when exploring a project management career.
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Two project managers sketching a project on a whiteboard and the text How to Become a Project Manager.

Do you dream of managing a team of employees, enjoy boosting the efficiency of a project or find yourself analyzing and simplifying processes to make your professional and home life easier? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then a career in project management could be right for you.

Project management is a growing field that is in high demand across many industries. As businesses worldwide grapple with an increase in technology, a growing number of remote employees and an ever-changing regulatory landscape, hiring a highly skilled project manager has become a more common practice.

According to the 2018 Pulse of the Profession® report from industry organization Project Management Institute (PMI), a collective $1 million is wasted every 20 seconds by organizations worldwide due to ineffective and inefficient project management practices (PMI PDF source).

Kurt Mithoefer and the text Kurt Mithoefer.“There are a lot of benefits to project management,” said Kurt Mithoefer, senior director of project management and strategic initiatives at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “It gives you structure behind any kind of effort and allows for a strong understanding of that effort before it kicks off. A lot of businesses are seeing a lot of value in having a structured focus in an endeavor, having a lead person to really drive it - start to finish - and hopefully achieve the vision of that project.”

If you’re interested in a career improving processes and boosting efficiency, it’s important to understand how to become a project manager. While there are many ways to get started, earning a project management degree can help you stand out in this growing industry.

What Does a Project Manager Do?

A project manager is an expert multi-tasker and communicator, who can oversee all facets of a large project, communicate with all stakeholders and ensure the project is completed successfully, on time and on budget. Project managers also need a strong understanding of computer systems and software, which are often used to keep track of project timelines, budgets and personnel.

“A project manager is someone that is very dedicated, passionate and focused,” said Mithoefer. “It’s not always an easy thing to go in front of leadership and say that the project is going badly or needs more money. You need to be confident and well-spoken...There’s a lot of pieces and moving parts that need to be corralled, so you need to be a good problem solver.”

Project managers can find work in almost any field - from construction and real estate development to information technology, higher education and business management.

How to Become a Project Manager

Becoming a project manager typically involves earning a degree in the field, however, if you’re exploring how to get into project management, it’s important to consider your personality and work style.

Successful project managers are highly organized, have strong communication skills and are adaptable, Mithoefer said.

"You have to be detailed and very focused on human interactions and building relationships," he said. "Not every project goes well. Not every endeavor you set out to achieve is going to be realized. So you need to be able to bounce back, to have thick skin and be able to continually learn and improve."

For Mithoefer, project management was a field he'd never considered early on in his career. Instead, his passion for project management started when he identified a way to automate part of his daily work in compliance for a pharmaceutical company. He brought the idea to the company leadership and, after their enthusiastic response, managed the implementation of the new process.

Mithoefer went back to school part-time to study project management and before long, he found himself managing construction projects and IT infrastructure projects for his company. He's never looked back and now works full time leading project management initiatives at SNHU.

"It's definitely a passion for me," he said.

While many people enter the field of project management from another area of business, like Mithoefer, project management degrees are becoming more common and are a strong first step toward a project management career.

In a project management bachelor’s degree program, you’ll explore project management methodologies and learn tools and practices to use when creating and completing organizational projects. You’ll also lay a solid foundation of business knowledge, and develop project management skills like production planning, inventory control, logistics, supply chain management and quality control.

Project Management Careers and Salary Potential

Project management is a growing field, and is projected to remain strong with many opportunities for career and salary growth in the years ahead.

The 2018 PMI report found that organizations waste an average of 9.9% of every dollar due to poor project performance. The survey also found that about 1 in 3 projects don’t meet their goals, 43% aren’t completed within budget and nearly half are not completed on time.

Over the next 10 years, as new disruptive technology, increased competition and changing government regulations make completing projects on time and on budget even harder, demand for project managers is projected to grow faster than demand for workers in other occupations. According to PMI, employers worldwide will need nearly 88 million individuals in project management-oriented roles by 2027.

Salary potential is also strong for workers interested in entering the field of project management. According to Glassdoor, project managers earn an average of $66,137 each year, with the highest-paid project managers earning more than $107,000.

Workers with project management qualifications, strong work experience and a dedication to continuing their industry learning will be in high demand across many industries and organizations as this field continues to grow.

Project Management Beyond Your Bachelor's

If you're interested in continuing your education and potentially expanding your professional opportunities, you can consider earning a master's in project management. A master's is a milestone on your way to careers in "senior project management or other senior positions within an organization, according to Dr. Rick Mask, director of international online programs at SNHU.

Dr. Rick Mask and the text Rick Mask."With project management being broadly aligned to a number of career fields and providing a transferable skill set, a master's in project management is a worthy pursuit," he said. 

By enrolling in a master's – or a master of business administration with a concentration in project management – you can expect to expand the knowledge you gained in a bachelor's program, including additional skills in data science, quantitative analysis, lean and agile methodologies and more, Mask said.

In addition to moving up the career ladder, earning a master's or MBA in project management can be an important step for career changers looking to break into the field. 

"Pursuit of a maser's degree in project management is beneficial for both existing career professionals who wish to progress into a senior management role and those professionals wishing to shift into a new career," Mask said.

In addition to earning a project management degree, gaining professional project management qualifications can help you stand out among a growing field of applicants.

Earning a Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification from PMI, for example, lets employers know that you have a strong background of educational and professional experience and can significantly boost your salary and career growth potential. According to PMI data, PMP-certified workers earned about 20% more than project managers without a certification. Together with a project management degree program, a PMP certification can give you the skills you need to succeed as a project manager, and can help you find work in almost any industry.

If you aren't ready to enroll in master's degree program, you can consider a graduate certificate in project management to help prepare you for certification exams.

But there's no reason to wait for a degree or certification to get started in project management. You can jumpstart your career by starting with the work you're already doing, Mithoefer said.

"Look for ways to improve a current job function - that can be a good way to break into the project management world," he said. "Ask yourself how you can start a project or do a piece of your every day job better with improved processes."

Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

The Project Management Professional (PMP) is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

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