How to Become a Project Manager
Maybe you’re wondering how to get into project management. Or maybe you’re already deep in the throes of project management work, whether by careful planning or accident.
No matter which project management career path you’re considering (or which you’ve already taken), the path detailed below will help you thrive in your job duties.
In this how to become a project manager guide you will discover,
- What does a project manager do?
- How to get into project management
- The project manager career path
- Frequently asked questions
What does a project manager do?
A project manager has the vital role of ensuring discrete work projects run on time and to budget. That means leading an entire project from initiation through planning, execution, control, and completion. A project manager will always be at the head of a team, juggling different duties.
They will interact formally and informally with clients, design teams, salesforces, and other managers — so interpersonal skills are essential. In a project made up of many moving parts, project managers must see problems in advance and nip them in the bud. After all, they carry the can for the success or failure of the entire project.
Project manager duties.
A project manager’s duties include:
- Formulating, executing, monitoring, controlling, and completing a project to the satisfaction of all parties.
- Creating and implementing schedules to meet deadlines.
- Estimating costs and budget development.
- Team structuring and resourcing.
- Performing quality assurance.
- Managing and mitigating risk.
The role of a project manager is diverse and no workdays look the same. On a typical day, a project manager’s schedule may include:
- Meeting with senior management to decide the scope of an upcoming project
- Pitching to the finance department to raise more money
- Updating schedules after a meeting with software developers who are running late
- Completing a risk assessment
- Encouraging junior colleagues struggling with workloads
Skills a project manager needs.
The most successful project managers possess a certain set of skills, including:
- Critical thinking
- Time management
How to get into project management.
There are two main paths you can take on your journey towards becoming a project manager. Understand more about both routes below to decide which may be right for you.
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 deciding on 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:
- Integration management
Managing the big picture, project integration management combines individual tasks and processes into a single project with confirmed objectives and deliverables.
- Communications management
Communications project management ensures all information and data needed is successfully percolated through a team and properly collected, stored and distributed through the most appropriate messaging channels. The three primary steps are planning, managing and controlling.
- Cost management
This is the process of planning, estimating, budgeting, and controlling project costs. Cost management processes enable project teams to plan and control budgets during the project life cycle. A project manager must plan, allocate and schedule all the resources needed for each stage of the project, estimate costs, budget and control any unforeseen financial risks.
- Quality management
Continually measuring the quality of all activities and taking corrective action until the desired quality is achieved is all part of quality management. The three primary processes are quality planning, quality assurance and quality control.
Quality management helps control the cost of a project, establish standards, and determine the steps to achieve and confirm those standards. Effective quality management of a project also lowers the risk of product failure or dissatisfied clients.
- Time management
Time is precious, so project time management is crucial. Project managers must analyze and develop a schedule and timeline for project completion. Formalized time management processes provide a buffer against unexpected roadblocks, misfiring teams, and over-optimistic project timelines. Good time management also leads to better productivity and keeps projects within budget.
- Resource management
Project managers must manage and assign your organization’s resources, which include budgets, capacity, and team members. Successful resource management entails gaining insights into what your team is working on and how long it takes them to complete each task. They should prioritize tasks and communicate expectations to stakeholders and team members, while status updates need tracking throughout the project life cycle.
- Scope management
Plan, define, validate, and control the scope of a project. Without a comprehensive scope management plan, your team may undertake work that’s unnecessary or even waste time thinking about what they should be doing next.
- Risk management
You can often mitigate risk by developing a project risk management process to ensure threats have a limited effect on the project outcome, while maximizing opportunities. A skilled project manager understands the potential effects that risks can have on their projects, and manages them accordingly, ultimately resulting in improved odds for project success.
- Procurement management
The project manager should ensure resources are obtained as smoothly as possible. Priorities may include keeping costs low, selecting quality inputs, and preferred vendors. This will ensure team members have access to the goods, services, and resources they need to complete a project on time, on spec and within budget.
- Stakeholder management
Identifying who is a stakeholder in a project and how they are involved in the process ensures everyone gets the information they need — no more, no less. Stakeholders could include clients, team members, suppliers, and the public.
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 skills and job duties of a project manager.
You may discover that you’ve got deep experience in communication and time management. You might 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 career 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 understand the things you still need to learn to advance your career as a project manager, you can make a plan and take advantage of opportunities at work and outside of the office to fill in your knowledge gaps.
The skills you’ll need for becoming a project manager include:
- Good time management. This will avoid carefully planned timelines collapsing at the first sign of trouble (which there inevitably will be).
- Communication. Passing on accurate and detailed descriptions of tasks and expectations is crucial.
- Adaptability. Timelines, budgets, stakeholders, and team members can all change at short notice. A project manager must be a first-rate problem solver.
- Teamwork. Project managers must excel at motivating and managing others to carry out essential tasks beyond their own capabilities. Strong interpersonal skills are vital.
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 skill shares that home in on specific components of project management. Or you can take advantage of classes offered through PMI or online learning platforms like Pluralsight.
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 becoming a full-time project manager. 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 manager 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 manager career.
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 step.
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 manager role somewhere else.
Remember that each project manager job 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.
Path #2: Planned project management education and certification.
It’s an exciting day when you decide to become a project manager. There are so many opportunities in almost every industry for a highly organized, self-motivated leader.
As you move along in the project manager career path, there will be many opportunities for you to build your knowledge, get trained in specific disciplines and methodologies, and get a professional project management certification.
Step 1: Commit to becoming a project manager.
Setting out to become a project manager begins with learning as much as you can from industry experts, and then starting on your career path with learning, training and certification.
With project managers in many different industries, and with various ways to learn, it will be important for you to have an idea of the project management career path you want to pursue before you start.
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 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.
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.
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. 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 becoming a project manager, you’re continuously learning, avoiding stagnation, and keeping up in a dynamic field.
The project management career path.
A project management career path requires more than knowing how to manage abstract tasks and projects. You also need leadership skills to successfully rally a team around common goals.
Advancing along the project management career path.
The following roles can help provide you with experience and knowledge you need to succeed in the world of project management:
This entry-level administrative position helps project managers with tasks like handling paperwork, scheduling meetings, keeping an eye on project timelines and budgets, and overseeing progress toward stated goals.
This technical position involves creating, updating, and coordinating project schedules, often using a project management platform to allocate and monitor organizational resources and keep the project on track.
Assistant project manager.
Team members in this role work closely with project managers to identify client needs, establish budgets, manage resources, and organize them all into an actionable plan.
A project managertakes the lead role in planning, organizing, executing, directing, and reporting on projects for clients or stakeholders, ensuring that projects meet stated goals within constraints of time, budget, and scope.
Senior project manager.
With several years of project management experience under their belts, people in this position are often entrusted with larger or more complex projects, or they may oversee an entire portfolio of projects.
Advanced project management careers.
Once you’ve excelled at each of these project management roles, you may want to seek out a higher-level position along the project management career path, such as a senior or executive project manager, in which you would oversee a group of project managers and their respective project portfolios.
Keep in mind that the specific job descriptions for each of these roles can vary from company to company. The foundational project management skills you’ll gain are transferable between companies and even entirely different industries.
Frequently asked questions.
What is a project manager’s salary?
According to Glassdoor, the average project manager salary in the US is $88,907. Of course salaries can vary widely depending on the size of the project, the business seeking a project manager and your level of experience. The current economic climate may also impact project manager salaries.
How do I become a project manager without experience?
Many project managers fall into the role — they happen to be in the right place at the right time, sometimes without any direct experience of project management. Try to develop and showcase project management skills, find training opportunities, get a mentor and put yourself forward. Gaining industry-wide experience and building your management skills can also help.
How long does it take to become a project manager?
With previous managerial experience, you may be able to become a project manager within a few months. If you’re just starting out on the road to becoming a project manager, building up your experience and qualifications may take a few years — but the rewards will be worth it.