Project Management Careers
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Project managers lead multidisciplinary teams and oversee a project from inception to completion. Professionals in this field typically focus their education on business-oriented knowledge and skills, but they also take some specialized classes based on what industry they want to work in. This guide offers in-depth information on project management careers, including employment options based on degree level and professional development resources.
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Why Pursue a Career in Project Management?
Careers in project management span industries like construction, marketing, information technology, biotechnology, and sustainable energy. Successful managers are excellent problem-solvers and communicators who are willing to take calculated risks to ensure their team completes projects on time and within budget. Because they play a role in every step of the process, project managers must possess general business knowledge and technical skills.
In addition to crucial hard skills, project managers must also possess the ability to effectively multitask and adapt, as well as maintain a positive attitude to motivate their team members. Finally, as with all professional leaders, project managers need to be ethical, decisive, and accountable.
Project Management Career Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professionals in management earn a median annual wage of $105,660. However, the amount of money you can actually make depends on your employer, degree level, and skillset. The table below contains salary information for four project management careers based on professional experience.
The BLS projects that management positions will expand by 7% between 2018 and 2028, adding more than 700,000 new jobs to the U.S. economy. The projected growth for healthcare managers and financial managers is even higher: 18% and 16%, respectively. Employment opportunities in the social services, IT, and construction industries are also projected to increase.
|Construction Project Manager
|IT Project Manager
|Engineering Project Manager
|Marketing Project Manager
Skills Gained With a Project Management Degree
Regardless of the industry, project managers must have a solid grasp of business concepts like risk analysis and supply chain coordination. They also need to possess a variety of soft skills, including the ability to think strategically under stressful situations, while deftly communicating with team members, company directors, and stakeholders.
Because project managers often act as intermediaries between company executives, stakeholders, team members, and the public, these professionals must be able to relay information and strategic messaging. On top of in-person conversations, managers also communicate through web conferencing and extended emails. A clear line of communication also ensures that their team fully understands project goals.
As professional leaders, project managers work toward what is best for individual employees and the company at large. Effective leadership consists of interpersonal respect, honesty, and the ability to keep promises. Project managers also need to resolve conflict in a fair manner, whether it arises between team members or between the organization and its stakeholders.
All projects contain limitations in terms of time and funding. It is the project manager's job to allocate resources efficiently through careful pre-planning and scheduling. Through these processes, managers create transparency and build a safety net when unforeseen problems arise.
Project managers are also tasked with resolving problems by analyzing relevant data, consulting experts, and implementing creative solutions. Critical thinking is also integral to pre-planning, enabling managers to pick the best strategies to maximize return on investment.
Projects can behave like living things, constantly evolving as they move toward completion. Managers need to quickly adapt to any changes, guide their team, and avoid temporary setbacks or complete failures. Flexibility also allows project managers to multitask without succumbing to stress and burnout.
Project Management Career Paths
Project managers can be found in nearly every sector of the economy. For instance, project managers in construction oversee the building of bridges and buildings, while those in sales can help a company break into a new geographic market. This section details a variety of project management careers, preparing you to pick the college program that matches your professional goals.
Computer and Information Systems Management
IT managers plan and direct computer-related projects, including setting communication standards and determining what information systems best suit the company's needs. These professionals may oversee the activities of a single department or help guide an entire organization. In addition to negotiating with vendors, IT project managers may coordinate the duties of software developers, security analysts, and support specialists.
These project managers maintain the financial health of their organization. They direct investment plans and monitor organizational activities. To develop long-term goals, financial managers evaluate market trends to discover new expansion opportunities. They are also in charge of producing fiscal reports and finding ways for the organization to cut costs.
Food Service Management
Food service managers direct the daily operations for restaurants, hotels, concert venues, and other establishments in the hospitality industry. They create organizational standards for personnel conduct to make sure their team complies with health and safety regulations. These managers also oversee the quality and cost-effectiveness of meals and handle customer complaints.
Sometimes called medical or health services managers, these professionals improve the quality and efficiency of patient services and internal activities. They may guide a single clinical department or manage an entire facility. Since healthcare laws and regulations constantly change, healthcare managers must stay up-to-date to ensure their organization's compliance.
Social Services Management
Social services managers supervise projects that support the public good. They can occupy leadership positions in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit enterprises like residential care facilities. By analyzing data and meeting with community members, social services managers can develop programs to serve a specific demographic or solve a particular problem.
Marketing managers work with financial analysts and advertising specialists to build public interest for their company's products and services. After identifying new or growing markets, these professionals develop advertising campaigns and pricing strategies. Marketing managers also supervise illustrators and graphic designers to ensure that media components -- such as websites and promotional materials -- sustain consumer engagement.
How to Start Your Career in Project Management
While you may be able to pursue a career in project management through self-training, college programs offer an efficient means to cultivate core skills and access valuable professional development resources and networking opportunities. Earning an undergraduate degree can provide you with general business knowledge related to organizational leadership and financial analysis, preparing you for entry-level careers.
Job options expand as you gain practical experience and earn additional credentials. Graduate programs introduce advanced skills -- like enterprise modeling risk assessment -- that can prepare you to take control of the full project cycle. Additionally, professional organizations offer specialized certificates that affirm your expertise in a particular industry or management process.
Associate Degree in Project Management
Some two-year colleges do offer associate of applied science degrees in project management and construction management, but these options are rare. Alternatively, you can enroll in a general business management/administration program, which covers many of the same basic concepts and skills. In either case, you will typically spend two years earning about 60 credits and taking courses like professional communication and business law.
An associate degree can prepare learners for entry-level assistant positions. These professionals coordinate an aspect of the project cycle with the guidance of their managing supervisor. Many associate degree-holders choose to continue their education by transferring into a bachelor's completion track.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Project Management?
Coordinators assist project managers with administrative tasks, including facilitating communication and coordinating meetings between clients and team members. They also ensure everyone involved with a project has necessary information and resources. As the direct support for project managers, coordinators have knowledge of short-term and long-term goals, as well as budgeting and scheduling details.
Administrative assistants work in nearly every sector. They provide support to government agencies, schools, and private corporations. They handle routine clerical tasks like scheduling appointments, organizing staff meetings, and maintaining paper and electronic documents. With specialized training, these professionals can work as medical and legal secretaries or advance into executive assistant positions.
Event planners arrange social and professional gatherings, including academic conferences, business conventions, and weddings. They meet with clients to determine the resources needed to achieve the event's scope. Event planners also inspect venues, handle vendor bidding and payment, and monitor event activities to ensure attendee and client satisfaction.
Bachelor's Degree in Project Management
The majority of project managers begin their academic journey by completing a bachelor's program, spending about four years cultivating the skill set needed for professional success. In lieu of a traditional on-campus pathway, you can enroll in a flexible and cost-effective online bachelor's in project management program. The roughly 120-credit curriculum covers topics like applied leadership principles, project scheduling and control, and assessing and managing risk.
As a bachelor's degree-holder, you can qualify for many entry-level project management careers, working in conventional business fields like marketing, human resources, and training and development. Additionally, by pursuing a concentration, you can obtain a job with government disaster relief agencies or community development organizations.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Project Management?
Operations managers oversee the production process to ensure their company's goods and services are delivered efficiently, while also maintaining quality standards and adhering to environmental laws and other government regulations. They also make sure project costs do not undermine sales and profit goals. Depending on the size of the company, operations managers may supervise purchasing, manufacturing, and warehousing departments.
These business leaders buy services and products that their company can use or resell. On top of managing a team of administrators and buying agents, purchasing managers interview vendors to assess the quality, price, and speed of their deliverables. Purchasing managers often attend trade shows and industry conferences to network with potential suppliers.
Emergency Management Director
Working for government agencies and humanitarian groups, emergency management directors prepare communities for natural and human-made disasters. They assess potential hazards and implement plans to mitigate damage to people and property. These directors also oversee the deployment of staff and volunteers, as well as the allocation of equipment and other resources.
Product Development Manager
These project managers work with their teams to conceptualize and create new products or improve existing items. They must be able to analyze market conditions and consumer habits to identify potential needs for new products. Product development managers also work with marketing and advertising specialists to create promotional campaigns for targeted audiences.
Nonprofit managers build and sustain programs that support their communities. They organize outreach events to determine the needs of underserved populations. These managers also oversee fundraising efforts, identify potential donors, and write grant applications. To succeed in nonprofit management, professionals must have expert communication skills that enable them to engage community members and recruit volunteers.
Environmental Project Manager
Environmental project managers employed by private corporations oversee the construction of manufacturing and energy production facilities. They ensure their company's ventures meet government contract regulations and waste disposal laws. When working for environmental groups, these project managers coordinate sustainability and remediation efforts.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Master's Degree in Project Management
Master's programs in project management teach you specialized skills for your specific industry, preparing you to advance into mid-level positions like senior project managers. The curriculum usually features about 30 credits and generally takes two years to complete. However, by enrolling in accelerated online project management master's programs, you can graduate in about 12 months.
Students learn to manage cost and value and oversee procurement while adhering to commercial laws and regulations in the U.S. and abroad. Many colleges provide degree specializations in areas like engineering and healthcare, enabling you to guide product innovation and service development in specific sectors.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Project Management?
Senior Project Manager
Experienced project managers can advance into senior positions and oversee multiple projects across different departments. They allocate resources, finalize schedules, and maintain stage gate quality and control guidelines. Senior project managers also approve change requests and conduct research to improve future project delivery.
Health Services Manager
These healthcare administrators and executives may coordinate individual departments or entire clinics and hospitals. They improve the efficiency and quality of services by quickly adapting to changes in regulations and technology. Health service project managers also represent their teams on governing boards and at investor meetings, pushing for more funding or suggesting changes to organizational governance.
Construction Project Manager
Sometimes called general contractors, these professionals supervise the construction and maintenance of industrial and residential structures, as well as public infrastructure like roads and bridges. They supervise subcontractors and collaborate with civil engineers and architects. In addition to securing government approval, construction managers are in charge of cost estimations for materials and labor.
Project Management Consultant
Project management consultants can work for a single corporation, advising internal teams on how to improve the production process and overall quality of deliverables. These professionals may also work as freelancers; in this case, they meet with multiple clients to conduct in-person analyses before creating detailed action plans. These visits continue throughout the life of the project as consultants check progress and resolve issues that arise.
IT Project Manager
As mentioned previously, IT project managers can occupy a general leadership position, deciding what computer hardware and information systems best support their organization's needs. These professionals may also work as chief information officers, who decide long-term goals alongside executives. Furthermore, IT managers can specialize in cybersecurity, leading teams to investigate security violations and digital theft.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Doctoral Degree in Project Management
Students can choose from two main degree options at the doctoral level. Doctor of project management programs emphasize scholar-practitioner training that prepare you for C-level executive positions in major corporations. Over the course of about three years, you will delve into leadership theory and applied action research, preparing to guide individual project cycles and plan for long-term organizational growth.
Alternatively, you can enroll in a Ph.D. program in business administration with a project management specialization. This research-focused option opens the doors to careers related to college-level teaching and research. Common courses include multivariate analysis, curriculum design, and organizational theory and change.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Project Management?
While you might be able to teach at some schools with a master's degree, doctoral credentials are usually required for tenured positions. In addition to providing classroom instruction, postsecondary teachers help students conduct independent research and find internships. They also occupy administrative positions within their departments and assist with recruitment and curricular development.
Also called C-level executives, these business leaders oversee the entire scope of their company's strategies and goals. They coordinate duties for all project teams and make sure members adhere to organizational procedures and policies. As the highest level of leadership, top executives also appoint project managers and department heads.
Senior Business Researcher
Dedicated researchers can work in academic settings to conduct investigations into new management and financial processes with the aid of grants and stakeholder funding.
Alternatively, senior business researchers may occupy practitioner positions with corporations and consulting firms. These professionals apply research to improve organizational efficiency and other client objectives.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
How to Advance Your Career in Project Management
Once you have obtained an entry-level project management position, career advancement is contingent on achieving professional success and learning new skills. You will need to demonstrate your ability to motivate employees and lead projects from conception to successful completion. Cultivating work experience is also a common eligibility requirement for professional certification.
Innovations in business strategies, processes, and technology occur rapidly. You can learn about recent advancements by earning an advanced college degree or certificate. It is also important to select a program that allows you to focus on competencies specific to your industry. Other continuing education options include open online classes hosted on platforms like edX and Coursera.
Pursuing optional certification is a great way to display mastery over core knowledge and develop specialized skills. The Project Management Institute (PMI) provides one of the most respected professional credentials in the field: the project management professional (PMP) credential. This demonstrates to companies all over the world that you are an experienced leader capable of directing teams toward successful project completion.
Voluntary and non-governmental certification also exists for specific industries. For example, the American Institute of Constructors delivers certification programs for beginners and experienced construction project managers. Additionally, the Global Association for Quality Management provides three tiers of certification that center on resource allocation and risk mitigation.
There are several ways to continue your education. Formal master's and doctoral programs in project management allow you to develop advanced skills for your specific career trajectory. Alternatively, you can enroll in a certificate program and take about six courses in topics like managerial accounting and agile management. Certificate tracks let you earn the education hours needed to qualify for PMP certification in less time than a full degree plan.
You may also pursue continuing education by taking free online classes. If you already have a master's degree, consider applying to fellowship opportunities through your school or private organizations like Vera Solutions and Armacad Marketing. Additionally, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management provides a presidential management fellowship that includes 160 hours of formal interactive training and guaranteed job placement.
Continuing education not only lets you learn new skills, but it also enables you to satisfy professional certification renewal criteria. For example, PMI certification requires professionals to complete 60 professional development units over three years. This can be done by giving back to the profession and/or demonstrating growth in technical, leadership, and strategic/business management areas.
To advance your project management career, you also need to expand your professional circle through networking. Industry events like Agile & Beyond and the University of Maryland's Project Management Symposium provide excellent opportunities to connect with colleagues and learn from experts. You can also grow your network by becoming a member of a professional organization.
How to Switch Your Career to Project Management
Because project management is a ubiquitous part of business activity and growth, professionals in adjacent fields like administration, human resources, and marketing usually find themselves overseeing projects as they advance within their organization. Many companies provide in-house training to help individuals meet these new responsibilities. Employers may also offer to reimburse employees who want to earn a project management certificate or degree.
Project managers looking to switch into a different industry should conduct thorough research on the practices, jargon, and emerging trends of that industry. Open online classes are a great tool, as they teach you to transfer your existing skills into a new context. Professional organizations are another great resource; you can make new network connections and take advantage of mentorship opportunities.
Where Can You Work as a Project Manager?
Since effective motivators and ethical leaders are highly desired in nearly every professional setting, careers in project management cover a wide spectrum of geographic locations and industries. PMI estimates that project management occupations will grow 33% across 11 countries (including the United States) from 2017-2027. China, India, Germany, Brazil, and Canada are also on this list.
According to PMI, project managers can find the best opportunities in sectors like finance and insurance, information services and publishing, and oil and gas. Manufacturing and construction is the leading sector for occupational expansion, with a projected growth of 9.7 million new project management jobs around the world.
Interview With a Professional in Project Management
Director of Growth, 3GIMBALS
Travis Wright is the Director of Growth at 3GIMBALS -- a services firm supporting the intelligence community. His journey began in aviation as a helicopter pilot and then as an airline pilot before he became a military staff officer and eventually a management consultant. He's worked with senior leaders across industries, helping them tackle tough problems. As a lifelong learner, he's earned degrees from George Washington University and executive certificates from Georgetown University and the senior executive fellows program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
If you were to ask him about his most notable achievements, he might tell you that one of his proudest accomplishments was working as a liaison to the White House Drug Policy office. When Travis is not writing books, speaking, or consulting, he likes taking on home projects and tinkering with a variety of new technologies.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in project management? Is it something that you were always interested in?
I was a pilot in the military and I've always enjoyed planning, whether it was for a flight or for a program I was in charge of. I enjoyed coordinating meetings, setting deadlines and accomplishing goals. I didn't realize what I was doing was project management -- call me the accidental project manager!
As I was promoted to more senior manager roles I started looking at graduate school programs. I looked at MBA programs but they felt too generic and didn't excite me. Then I ran across the MS in project management program at George Washington University, which was a great fit. Interestingly, I attended the program over 10 years ago, and even back then they offered a hybrid online program where online students participated with traditional students. The classes would be recorded and released as video podcasts right after the class was over and then the professor would hold office hours for any questions. They were ahead of their time!
How is a project management program different from other college majors?
The project management program at GW is part of the business school and after talking with other grad school students in other programs I'm certainly glad I chose PM. I remember at graduation I ran into a fellow grad who just got his degree in information sciences. He said he wished he had gone the PM route because it was much more versatile than his major.
What was the job search like after completing your degree?
Soon after I received my degree I left the military and began my transition to a civilian career. Because I am in Washington, D.C., there are a lot of government contractors with job requirements that are written by the government. Many of those jobs will require a project management professional (PMP) certification in the contract language. When I would hand my resume to a recruiter and talk about my experience the conversation would go like this:
Recruiter: "Do you have a PMP?"
Me: "I have a master's in project management"
Recruiter: "But do you have a PMP?"
Me: Sighing, "Yes, I have a PMP."
Some companies are just looking for a certification to check the box so it makes it easier to get a contract. I ended up steering clear of those companies and landing a role at a company that valued my deeper experience of PM than a certificate provides.
Is project management a versatile degree? Or one that has a clear career path?
That is actually what drew me to PM -- I like the variety. There are so many industries that have a need for expert PMs. Engineering, IT, and construction seem to be the biggest industries, but the great thing about project management is that any time you are working with people to complete a task, you need someone to set deadlines, manage to those dates, and coordinate resources. All the things that PMs do best!
Is your career path typical of someone who graduates with a project management degree?
Many of my classmates stayed in strong PM fields like engineering or IT and used more of the technical skills we learned. My career took a different track and I ended up in management consulting. I still find use for my PM skills, especially when I consult on an IT project. I get instant credibility from my clients when I talk about my PM education and background because we speak the same language.
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job? The most challenging?
I really enjoy being handed a challenging task and working with a group of really smart people to figure out the best solution. I like breaking down tasks, finding the right talent to accomplish those tasks, and making sure they have the resources they need. I think the most satisfying part of my job is to see other people succeed.
What advice would you give to students considering a degree and career in project management?
Project management is a great career that can take you on many different paths. You can be a specialist in your field (engineering, IT, etc.) and PM will help you be better at your job. You can be industry agnostic (like me!) and successfully manage projects by relying on subject matter experts to guide you.
Resources for Project Management Majors
The following sections cover resources that can help you gain entry into the field or advance within your current career in project management. We review benefits afforded to members of professional associations, free online courses and research tools, and some of the most influential books about leadership theory and project management best practices.
Offering networking and educational opportunities, professional development, certification, and online resource libraries, professional organizations are a good place for young project management professionals to begin building their careers.
American Management Association: AMA hosts a global community of peers and practitioners through one of the world's most sophisticated knowledge-exchange networks. Student members enjoy discounts on seminars and other resources, access to webinars and podcasts, subscriptions to the online journal MWorld, and two newsletters.
Green Project Management Association: GPM fosters a "three-pillar approach" to project management, including its PRISM (projects integrating sustainable methods) methodology, training, and GPM-b or GPM certification. Student members gain access to a reference guide, a GPM-b certification practice exam, discounts on accreditation and PM books, and access to project management resources.
International Project Management Association: Founded in 1965, IPMA was the world's first project management association. Members enjoy access to the bi-monthly International Journal of Project Management, a quarterly newsletter, and the annual Project Perspectives. Networking occurs in workshops, through local member associations, and at national and international conferences and congresses. Members can also take advantage of a variety of certification opportunities.
Project Management Institute: PMI membership helps PM professionals earn credentials that certify project management expertise. Open to students as well as professionals, membership includes online access to PMI's reference library. Other benefits include a job board and educational opportunities offered through PMI's on-demand courses and seminars.
In the 21st century, some of the top colleges and universities in the world have made the content of their courses freely available online. With these open-access classes, aspiring project management professionals can develop skills and expertise in the field without breaking the bank.
Project Management - MIT: Taught by Professor Fred Moavenzadeh of the civil and environmental engineering department, this undergraduate-level class "focuses on the management and implementation of construction projects -- primarily infrastructure projects." The three main areas of coursework focus on financing, evaluating, and organizing projects. Learners cover basic skills and knowledge in the fieldin order to take a project from inception to completion. Lecture notes and a list of suggested readings are also provided.
System Project Management - MIT: This graduate-level course taught by Professors Olivier de Weck, James Lyneis, and Dan Braha explores management principles, methods, and tools to effectively plan and implement successful system and product development projects. Learners examine four main topics in PM: preparation, planning, adaptation, and monitoring. Students review classical techniques and are introduced to new methodologies, including design structure matrices, system dynamics, and probability simulations. Selected lecture notes and a list of suggested readings are also provided.
Construction Project Management - Columbia University: This beginner course is taught by Professor Ibrahim Odeh and delivered through Coursera. In addition to an overview of the construction industry, students learn to develop a work breakdown structure as part of project planning and scheduling. They also explore developments in project delivery methods and information modeling technology.
Budgeting and Scheduling Projects - University of California, Irvine: In this intermediate class taught by Professor Margaret Meloni, students learn to stick to financial and time constraints from. Topics include identifying resources, defining milestones, and applying three major cost estimation techniques. Learners also develop the ability to evaluate each component of a project's quality management plan. Furthermore, they become adept at assigning responsibilities to team members using a data-support matrix.
Publications - Open-Access Journals
Like universities with open courseware, many of the top academic publications are making some or all of their content freely available online. The open-access information provided in these journals can help project management professionals stay current.
Construction Management and Economics: This journal includes original research related to the management and economics of building and civil engineering. It uses a hybrid model featuring paid and open-access content.
Journal of Engineering, Project, and Production Management: Articles in this double-blind, peer-reviewed journal cover a wide variety of topics. PM professionals can freely access the articles available in this open publication.
Journal of Project, Program, and Portfolio Management: This peer-reviewed academic publication hosts qualitative and quantitative research. Articles in this scholarly journal can be accessed for free.
Production Planning & Control: This international journal highlights the activities of managers and future researchers. Theoretical, simulation-based, and experimental research is not accepted by this applied, peer-reviewed journal. Although some content requires a subscription, many articles are freely available.
Publications - Books
Longer reads offer experts more time to develop significant insights and explain strategies. The tips and advice found on this list of books can help aspiring project managers step into leadership roles with confidence and competence.
The Lazy Project Manager: How to Be Twice as Productive and Still Leave the Office Early: Peter Taylor brings 30 years of project management experience to this book of successful PM case studies. Building upon the idea of "productive laziness," Taylor demonstrates how focusing on the "bare necessities" helps project managers achieve success without being chained to a desk.
Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management: Scott Berkun -- an author, blogger, and project management expert -- presents tried-and-true strategies for seeing a project through from inception to completion. Many of Berkun's proven strategies are derived from his years of working as a program manager for Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive: Bringing balance to project management, professor Terri L. Griffith describes effective methods of incorporating technology into a project without losing track of the people involved. Strategies and best practices are found in case studies and interviews with employees from major companies, including Microsoft, Intuit, and Zappos.