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The Different Paths to a Career in Project Management

Ryan Ayers
Updated Jan 23, 2023

Want to become a project manager? Learn how to develop the skill set employers demand.

It’s relatively easy to become a project manager (PM). Becoming a project manager who can land a gig, however, is – like anything else that’s worth the effort – a different story.

Nearly every organization needs a project manager. Resultantly, you may want to pursue a career as a PM, in part, for job security.

However, becoming a project manager isn’t as straightforward as earning a certification and finding a job. By understanding a few facts about the role, you can work toward developing the requisite skillset demanded by employers.

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The way most people become PMs

Many executives and team leaders find themselves fulfilling the role of a project manager. Often, they accept a job offer utterly unaware that, one day, their employer will task them with leading a project.

Certification isn’t necessary to become a project manager. Most entry-level project managers have already earned an advanced degree and have had their superiors thrust them into the role without training. Alternatively, some professionals realize that they might enjoy project management and pursue certificate training to meet that goal.

If you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree and want to become a PM, start by assessing your current skill set. Then, figure out what skills you need to earn to fulfill the role.

Once you’ve determined what you need to learn, you’ll need to search for learning opportunities. After you’ve earned your certification, you’ll want to take advantage of every chance to use your new skills in your current role.

You’ll also need to develop a plan for segueing into the role of a full-time project manager, perhaps by consulting with human resources personnel. They may even help you with tuition reimbursement for project management training.

Do I need a bachelor’s degree to become a project manager?

The short answer is no. You do not need a bachelor’s degree to become a project manager. However, you’ll find it challenging to land a job if your only qualification is PM certification.

A degree proves to an employer that you can fulfill the responsibilities of an available role. For instance, employers demand that job candidates possess a range of communication skills.

As a result, most professionals enter a full-time PM role only after earning a degree in project or business management. Other degrees that can help launch you into your PM career are economics or business analytics. If you’re past your college years and looking for switch into project management, it might be worth checking out online business analytics degree programs that you can complete while still working fulltime and that will give you a leg up over other applicants.

You aren’t obligated to earn a degree; however, you’ll most likely have to compete against PM hopefuls who have done so.

If you’re determined to land a PM role without a degree, you’ll have to find some other way to show an employer that you’re capable of handling the job competently. For instance, you may have previous professional experience in another industry that an employer may accept as work experience. Furthermore, you cannot earn Project Management Professional Certification without a four-year degree – more about that in a moment.

More importantly, it will cost you in the long run if you bypass earning a degree. PMs with a bachelor’s degree earn nearly $20,000 more per year than those who haven’t earned one. Throughout a career, that’s a lot of money.

Can I become a project manager without a bachelor’s degree?

Without a bachelor’s degree, you’ll have to perform phenomenally at your job to land a role as a project manager. Accordingly, your best course of action is to stay with your current organization and build an exceptional work history. A strong work history will show employers that you are stable, professional and competent.

Furthermore, you’ll need to possess and display detailed knowledge about your industry. Employers must also see that you are organized and can lead teams effectively.

You’ll need to acquire as much hands-on experience as possible to land a role as a project manager. Therefore, it may make sense for you to volunteer with nonprofits or local businesses to gain additional work experience.

If you have management experience, you’re off to a good start. Leadership experience transfers well across virtually all industries and fields.

You may also want to consider joining associations relevant to your career path. By building a network of professional peers, you can learn more about your industry and might make connections that can help you gain more professional experience.

What project management certification do I need?

You may admire a coworker who’s working as a PM, or you may have fulfilled the role temporarily and decided that you’d like it as your full-time job. Before considering a career in project management, however, you’ll want to acquire professional experience in a specific field or industry.

It’s a good idea to start your PM learning journey by speaking with someone who’s currently in the role to learn more about it and learning as much information as you can from credible articles and blog posts.

You can earn one of two PM certifications – the Certified Associate in Project Management Certification (CAPM) and the Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification. The Project Management Institute (PMI) administers both certifications. However, you’ll need a minimum of 4,500 hours of experience and a bachelor’s degree to sit for PMP certification.

You can sit for the CAPM with a high school diploma and 1,500 hours of work-related experience. You can also substitute additional training with work experience for the CAPM.

For both certifications, you must commit to ongoing learning and recertification to retain your credentials. Either way, you must complete your work hours before you sit for the exam.

The Project Management Institute offers training through partners across the United States. For both certifications, you’ll need to study the Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide. Also, PMI publishes exam content outlines for both certifications to help you prepare for the exam.

Prospects for PMs

In a 2018 Gartner study, 59% of surveyed organizations said they deployed an AI initiative led by a project manager. As the business environment grows more complex, a growing number of organizations will hire PMs. However, the practices of PMs will evolve.

As an example, software development PMs commonly used the Waterfall management method in the past. Using this project management technique, one team would complete a deliverable and then pass it on to the next group, with little accountability – which resulted in many delivery bottlenecks.

Now, DevOps is the current best practice in software project management. Using DevOps, various business units work as a unified team and comply with production standards that ensure quality and consistency throughout the development pipeline, eliminating delivery bottlenecks.

Furthermore, DevOps involves working on smaller improvements called iterations, rather than working on large chunks of a project only to find out much later that the deliverable is flawed, resulting in costly and sometimes terminal errors. Now, DevOps enables teams to produce high-quality deliverables continuously while incorporating ongoing customer feedback quickly to meet and exceed the needs of buyers.

There’s no easy route to becoming a project manager. The most likely route to landing a PM role is to perform exceptionally in your current professional capacity while working toward certification.

With self-study and research, you can learn the basics of the profession. Begin by making yourself familiar with the Project Management Body of Knowledge. It’s the industry standard for working in the field. By excelling in your current role and learning everything that you can about project management, you can gain an advantage over your competitors.

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Ryan Ayers
Ryan Ayers has consulted a number of Fortune 500 companies within multiple industries including information technology and big data. After earning his MBA in 2010, Ayers also began working with start-up companies and aspiring entrepreneurs with a keen focus on sustainable scaling, professional development and business growth.