How to Become a Project Manager: Two Paths

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, 9 min read

If becoming a project manager interests you, this is your post. First, know that project management requires a unique combination of skills.

Project managers need to manage deadlines and ensure your team sticks to its scope of work, while having the people skills to motivate and encourage your team. You need analytical and budgeting abilities, without letting the numbers stifle the creative voices of your team members.


See our post "5 Project Management Skills Every Marketing Manager Should Have" to learn more about the kinds of skills top project managers have.


While a good project manager isn’t the only key to success, having one at the helm can make a big difference in the outcome of a project.

The process of becoming a project manager is also unique because there isn’t one single prescribed path to becoming one. Some decide they want to be a project manager and take classes and get certified, while others with unrelated degrees or experience find themselves taking on the responsibilities of a project manager with no formal training.

So depending on your experience and skills, becoming a project manager might be a lofty goal or merely steps away. Whatever your current position, if you have interest in project management, there is a way to make it happen. 

We’re going to cover two paths to becoming a project manager: a more structured path involving education and certification, and a path guided by your personal experiences and the responsibilities you have already taken on.

You might even find yourself on both of these paths at different times or starting on one and deciding to take the other. It all depends on what you’re hoping to take from the process and what you’re bringing to it.

Path #1: Project Manager Education and Certification

1. Decide to Become a Project Manager

If you find yourself being envious of your classmate from college who is working as a project manager, or if you’ve been working as an informal project manager yourself, you might decide you want to become a certified project manager.

This may seem trite, but if you’ve never worked in a project management role, it is worth investing time to learn about the day-to-day of project management. Just like any other career, there are pros and cons.  Where to start? Perhaps interview a project manager or peruse our blog for project manager posts, like this one.

Once you make the decision to become a certified project manager, start working towards a certification.

2. Decide Which Certification You Will Pursue 

There are two common project manager certifications: the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) and the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. They 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 you to take and pass an exam.

You can qualify for the CAPM certification if you have at least 1,500 hours of work experience (or about 10 months in a full-time job) and 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 sets of prerequisites you can qualify for the PMP under, both of which require 35 hours of education. The first set requires a four-year degree, at least 4,500 hours of work experience (or about two and a half years in a full-time job), and required project management education.

The second requires a secondary degree, 7,500 hours of experience (or about four years in a full-time job), and the required educational training.

Evaluate your experience and what prerequisites you meet and figure out which of the certifications you want to pursue.

Someone with minimal experience might decide to pursue the CAPM certification and then work as a project manager until they qualify for the PMP certification, while someone who already has years of informal project management under their belt might decide to go straight for the PMP.

3. Begin Your Project Management Education 

The hours of project management education that are required can be obtained in a variety of ways, but they have to 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 training from dedicated training companies or employer-sponsored programs.

You’ll record all of your education in the certification application, so it’s important to track every hour. 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 your hours, or when you’re close to completing them, you can begin studying for the exam.

4. Prepare for and Take Your Certification Exam 

For both the CAPM and the PMP exams, you will need to study the entire Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide 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 classes that help you prepare for the exam. It all depends 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 if you passed.

If you do pass the exam, you can tout your certification on your resume and LinkedIn profile and take whatever next step you are working towards, like finding a job as a project manager or seeking a promotion within your current company.

5. Maintain Your Certification

Both certifications require holders to maintain them in different ways.

Once you’re CAPM certified, you have to take and pass the CAPM exam every five years to maintain your certification. The CAPM exam changes periodically, so it’s important to prepare for taking it each time.

For PMP certified project managers, you have to complete 60 professional development units (PDUs) each year to maintain your certification. There are a lot of ways to earn PDUs, including in-person and online courses, giving presentations related to your certification, and even volunteering your services to certain organizations.

Earning these PDUs is an important chance to keep learning and avoid stagnation, especially in a field that changes so often.

Path #2: The Accidental Project Manager

The second path to becoming a project manager usually involves taking on the responsibilities of a project manager without any training, or recognizing you want to be a project manager and taking your training into your own hands.

A lot of managers, team leads, and directors find themselves here, working as project managers without being hired for such responsibilities or getting any specific training.

While it may not be as cut-and-dry as getting a certification, you can become a project manager through gaining hands-on experience and taking on the responsibilities of a project manager in your day-to-day work. Here are some steps we recommend in this process.

1. Take Stock of the Experience You Already Have 

Whether you have heaps of experience creating a scope of work and managing teams of people, or you’ve just been thrust into a project management position without preparation, you likely already have some of the skills required to be a project manager.

Developing and sticking to budgets, planning schedules and timelines, and communicating with stakeholders and teams throughout a project are all important parts of project management, and they’re all things many knowledge workers do in the course of their work.

Take some time to research formal project management positions and talk to project managers that you work with or have in your network, and develop a list of skills and experience you have that you will utilize.

2. Figure Out What Experience you Lack

Before you commit yourself to spending hours of your own time on training or classes, it’s important to have a handle on what you still need to learn.

This depends on your experience up to this point. If you’ve been an informal project manager for a long time, you’ve probably learned a lot of the skills required to manage large projects. If you’re still new to project management or hoping to break into it, there are likely a few technical skills you need to learn.

For example, project managers usually need to be able to hold the project to a budget, manage contracts with vendors or contractors, and utilize project management software. If you’ve been in a non-project-management job, you probably haven’t had the chance to develop all of those skills, but maybe you do have one or two of them.

Once you have an understanding of the things you still need to learn, you can make a plan of attack and take advantage of opportunities at work and outside of the office to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.

3. Look for Opportunities to Learn

Once you’ve taken stock of what you need to learn, start looking for opportunities to fill out your skill set. Your own manager, project managers in your network, and professional associations like PMI can help you decide how to get started.

You might decide based on your experience or needs that informal and self-guided learning is right for you. 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.

Formal training can also be a huge asset, especially if you decide to pursue a certification.

For people with a lot 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.

Whether you decide to pursue certification or forge ahead without it, you should take advantage of all of the learning opportunities and resources you can.

And whether you’re already doing the job of a project manager or are hoping to take on some of those responsibilities, this newfound knowledge will make you a more effective team member.

4. Implement What You Have Learned

People who have found themselves accidentally wearing a project manager’s hat will have a lot of opportunities to use their newfound knowledge.

If your team hasn’t been using formal project management processes, you can start building and implementing them. You’ll probably start to see lots of opportunities to use resources more effectively or make things easier on your team members.

And even if you’re not quite in that position yet, you can start using the project management skills you’ve learned in the course of doing your own work and helping 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.

5. Decide What You Want to do Next 

While honing your project management skills is a process that may never end, you will reach a point where you can see a clearer picture of what you want to do next.

If your learning has been mostly self-guided, you might decide you want to pursue some more formal training. If your current position isn’t fulfilling the interest that made you want to pursue 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 be a little bit different, depending on the organizational and team culture. The way that you manage projects in a laid-back software company won’t be the same way you manage projects in a healthcare institution.

It’s also important to remember that as technology and best practices evolve, and you move between organizations, effective project management will look different. You might start to hear your team members using terminology you don’t know or suggesting processes you’re unfamiliar with.

Keep taking advantage of opportunities to learn and make sure you don’t get left behind. This is especially important for project managers, who need to be able to think on their feet and make decisions that affect all the parts of a project.

Whether project management is something you’re hoping to do in the future or something you found yourself doing without planning to, there’s a path between you and being a bona fide project manager. You just have to decide what you want that path to look like, what skills you need to pick up along the way, and how you’re going to get started.


See our SlideShare "81 Tips from PM Experts: How to be a Smarter, More Effective Project Manager" for the ultimate list of project management tips.

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