How to Become a Project Manager: Two Paths
Maybe you’re wondering how you become a project manager. Or maybe you’re already deep in the throes of project management work, whether by careful planning or accident. No matter which path you’re considering (or which you’ve already taken) there are advantages and challenges for the accidental PM and for the traditionally trained PM. This post will help you thrive in your job duties, no matter how you got here.
Path #1: The accidental project manager.
Many managers, team leads, and directors find themselves working as project managers, without having been hired specifically for such responsibilities as creating a project scope, maintaining a communication plan, managing resources, or mitigating risks.
Without preparation or training, these can seem like daunting tasks. But there are many ways you can get up to speed quickly on the basics of project management, then dive deeper into each management area.
Taking training and education into your own hands is not always as smooth or straightforward as enrolling in a certification course, but you can become a strong project manager through hands-on experience, research, and a commitment to ongoing learning.
Step 1: Take stock of the experience you already have.
You may already have more project management experience than you think. Consider the key project management knowledge areas:
Note the projects you’ve led in the past, and compare the areas you managed with the knowledge areas above. This will give you a sense of how your hands-on experience stacks up to the standard requirements of a project manager.
You may discover that you’ve got deep experience in communication and time management, and be pleasantly surprised to learn that you are already mastering some crucial project management skills. The point here is to get a clear picture of what you know and what you know how to do, so you can move on to step 2 below.
Step 2: Determine the knowledge and skills you need.
If you foresee a future in project management, you can round out your accidental experience with focused, intentional learning. But before you commit yourself to a training or certification course, determine your knowledge gaps.
First, get clear on the project management knowledge areas you are less experienced with, and the skills you still need to build or refine. Can you gain these with further experience in your current role? Can you take on new or different tasks where you are now? Can you receive mentoring or professional development from within your organization or professional area?
Once you have an understanding of the things you still need to learn, you can make a plan and take advantage of opportunities at work and outside of the office to fill in your knowledge gaps.
Step 3: Take advantage of learning opportunities.
Before you reach outside your organization for supplementary training or education, start by talking to your own manager or other project managers in your network. They can lead you to professional associations like PMI, and help you get started on learning what you need.
If you decide based on your experience or needs that informal and self-guided learning is right for you, you can find classes or skillshares that hone in on specific components of project management. Or you can take advantage of classes offered through PMI or online learning platforms like Pluralsight.
There are also project management books, training companies, and organizations that can help you take the reins on your own learning. Or maybe there’s simply a new software you need to get trained on.
More structured or formal training, like a certification course, can also be a huge asset. For those with plenty of informal project management experience, certification can help you transition into full-time project management. For those with little to no experience, the education requirements for certification can give you a head start on gaining the knowledge needed to land a project management job.
Step 4: Implement what you’ve learned.
Back at work, you will likely have many opportunities to use what you’re learning. If your team hasn’t been following any formal project management processes, you can start building and implementing them immediately. You’ll probably start to see lots of opportunities to use resources more effectively or make things easier on your team members.
Project-based work requires a lot of cooperation and communication between team members. Understanding the intricacies of project management can help you be a better team member as you work towards a project management role.
Step 5: Decide on your next move.
While you may never be completely finished developing your project management skills, you will reach a point where you’ll have a good sense of your next right move.
If your learning has been mostly self-guided, you might decide to pursue some more formal training. If your current position isn’t fulfilling the interest that brought you to project management in the first place, you might start looking for a formal project management position somewhere else.
Remember that each project management position will differ depending on the organizational and team culture. A laid-back software company will manage projects quite differently from, say, a major healthcare institution.
It’s also important to remember that project management will evolve right along with technology and best practices. Listen for new terminology in your organization or industry, and stay open to learning more about unfamiliar processes. This way you’ll be sure to lead your team with the latest knowledge and not get left behind as the field advances.
Path #2: Planned project management education and certification.
Step 1: Commit to becoming a project manager.
It’s an exciting day when you decide project management is the career for you. There are so many opportunities in almost every industry for a highly organized, self-motivated leader. Setting out to become a project management begins with learning as much as you can from industry experts, and then starting on your path with learning, training, and certification.
Step 2: Decide which certification you will pursue.
Two well-known project manager certifications, the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), and the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, are both offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI).
The biggest difference between the two is that it’s possible to get a CAPM certification without project management experience, while the PMP certification requires at least 4,500 hours of experience. There are different prerequisites for both, and they also require an exam.
You can qualify for the CAPM certification if you have at least 1,500 hours of work experience (about 10 months in a full-time job) plus a high school diploma or associate’s degree, or if you complete 23 hours of education, which we’ll cover in the next step.
There are two ways to qualify for the PMP, both of which require 35 hours of education. The first requirement includes a four-year degree, minimum 4,500 hours of work experience (about two and a half years in a full-time job), plus required project management education.
The second includes a secondary degree, 7,500 hours of experience (about four years in a full-time job), plus the required educational training.
Someone with minimal experience might decide to pursue the CAPM certification first, then work as a project manager until they qualify for the PMP certification. Someone who already has years of informal project management under their belt might decide to go straight for the PMP. Review the prerequisites and decide which certification is best for you.
Step 3: Begin your project management education.
The hours of project management education required can be obtained in a variety of ways, but they must be completed before you sit for your exam.
PMI offers training through Registered Education Providers and PMI chapters across the world that will qualify you for CAPM and PMP certification. You can also count related university and continuing education classes towards your hours, along with hours from dedicated training companies or employer-sponsored programs.
You’ll need to record all your education hours in the certification application, so keep records of when you took the class, what organization offered it, and what the subject matter was. This will help you complete your application and avoid having to retake any forgotten or unrecorded classes.
Once you’ve completed, or are very close to completing your hours, you can begin studying for the exam.
Step 4: Prepare for and take your certification exam.
For both the CAPM and PMP exams, you will need to study the entire Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide (PMBOK) published by PMI.
To help you study, both exams have accompanying Exam Content Outlines that lay out the content covered in each section of the exam. You can buy materials and study on your own, or you can purchase specific prep classes, depending on how you study best and what works for you.
The CAPM exam has 150 questions and can be taken online or in a designated testing center. The PMP exam has 200 questions and must be taken in a testing center. Once you have completed the exam and a short survey, you will find out whether you passed.
You can tout your certification on your resume and LinkedIn profile, and leverage your knowledge and accomplishment as you seek a position or promotion. If you don’t pass the exam, you can attempt it two more times within the year, which may come with additional fees. Check out this helpful Certification FAQ page for more details.
Step 5: Maintain your certification.
Both certifications require holders to maintain them in different ways.
You must pass the CAPM every five years to maintain your certification. The CAPM exam changes periodically, so it’s important to prepare well each time.
PMP certification requires you to complete 60 professional development units (PDUs) each year to maintain your certification. There are many ways to earn PDUs, including in-person and online courses, giving presentations related to your certification, and even volunteering your services to certain organizations.
In both paths to project management, you’re continuously learning, avoiding stagnation, and keeping up in a dynamic field.