Steps to Becoming a Certified Project Manager - Experience, Credentialing & Education

When humans work collaboratively, the boundaries of what we are able to accomplish become vast. Cooperation, however, is not always a simple endeavor, especially when it comes to ensuring that each piece of the collaborative puzzle fits exactly where it should.

This is where the work of a project manager becomes invaluable. If each skilled team member’s work is a puzzle piece in ensuring a project moves from the realm of idea to reality, the purpose of a project manager is to make sure the puzzle is completed on time, under budget, and in a way that meets or exceeds expectations.

Because almost every industry requires project management, the everyday tasks of a project manager can vary greatly depending on the project, the industry, or the product. In addition, project management can occur at various scales, from the management of one individual project within a business to the management of all the interdependent projects that comprise the entire business. Regardless of industry or scale, project managers must be skilled in initiating, planning, monitoring, controlling, and completing projects.

From the perspective of a daily tasks, project managers spend much of their time communicating and organizing. Project managers work with team members and clients to organize schedules, timelines, budgets, and deliverables. Project managers may assign tasks, communicate changing perspectives about the project, and provide team members with support. Often, project managers are responsible for taking all the diffuse information created by their team and organizing it into a palatable package that can be consumed either by clients or consumers. Project managers may also find themselves responsible for budgets, quality control, administrative tasks, conflict management, and performance reviews.

Although salary will vary by industry, the median salary for an average project manager in an unspecified industry is $73,596 per year, according to (2019). According to a 2017 report by the Project Management Institute (PMI), project management is a globally growing field that will require 87.7 million people to step up into project management-oriented roles by 2027. According to PMI, the leading sectors requiring project management will include healthcare, manufacturing and construction, information services and publishing, finance and insurance, management professional services, utilities, and oil and gas.

To learn the many pathways that can lead to a successful project management career, keep reading this step-by-step guide.

Guide to Becoming a Certified Project Manager

The idea of project management as a profession is relatively new. While project management is as old as project completion, the official systemaization and professionalization of project management didn’t occur until the 1950s. Because of this relative novelty, “project manager” as an official role also doesn’t have a sure future, nor is there is a tried-and-true pathway to becoming one.

While the future and the path to the role isn’t clearly defined, what is sure is that organizations will always need talented employees who have the skills embodied by those who are referred to as “project managers.”

Step 1: Graduate From High School (Four Years)

As a result of this novelty of the field, a high school graduate has the freedom to choose how they come into the role. They can choose to cultivate program management skills through the pathway of direct practice through work, or they can choose to continue to develop academically, pursuing the knowledge of project management through formalized means. Either path can lead to the ability to become a professionally certified project manager in the future.

Step 2a: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program (Four Years)

If academia is the path that feels best, a bachelor’s degree program in one’s interests is a solid start. Because project management will be needed across all industries and sectors, being passionate about one’s field will help to facilitate learning the intricacies of the field—something truly helpful for successful project management.

The trade-off to studying outside of project management is that many project-management-specific degrees often prepare you to sit for certification exams. Master’s degree programs (see step 5) may help non-project management undergraduates to make up for this fact.

For those high-school seniors for whom project management is their passion, many universities offer project management programs at the bachelor’s level. The requirements to be accepted into project management bachelor’s programs vary widely. Some programs require standardized tests like SATs or ACTs, while other programs do not. Some programs have minimum GPA requirements (2.75 to 3.0), while others grant conditional acceptance to students with lower GPAs.

Many universities offer generalized programs in project management that allow for students to specialize. Colorado State University Global offers an online bachelor of science (BS) in project management that prepares students in the theoretical, practical, and interpersonal knowledge needed for successful project management. Courses in the program include applying leadership principles, operations management, project procurement and contract management, and assessing and managing risk. If a student later becomes interested in a specific field, optional specializations are available in construction management, emergency management, healthcare management, information technology operations, operations management and supervision, organizational leadership, and public and non-profit management. The total degree is 120 units and takes four years to complete.

There are other programs specifically designed for those who already have an idea of the field in which they’d like to do project management. California State University Long Beach, for example, offers a 120-credit on-campus bachelor of science in construction management accredited by the American Council for Construction Education (ACCE). Designed to prepare graduates for construction engineering management, coursework in the program includes construction planning and scheduling, earthworks and civil works construction practices, business and construction law,and construction cost control.

Step 2b: Work or Volunteer in the Field of Your Choice (Variable Timeline)

Those who can manage the balance between school and work can begin to complete this step while in school. Although project management experience can be accumulated in the realm of a paid job, volunteer work related to project management also counts toward the 4,500 to 7,500 hours needed to qualify for PMI’s coveted “Project Management Professional” (PMP) certification.

Professionals on both non-traditional and traditional paths should seek opportunities in their place of work or in the places where they volunteer to lead and direct projects. While each project does not need to include all of these tasks, the project management tasks should include initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, controlling, and closing.

Earn 23 to 35 hours of formal education and/or continuing education (CE).

For those without bachelor’s degrees, PMI requires 23 to 35 hours of formal education in project management in order to quality for a certification. While most project management undergraduate and graduate degrees provide this 35 hours, those education is not in project management may need to seek courses that fulfill this requirement. When deciding how to go about gaining this 35 hours, look for institutions that are providing registered or certified continuing education for the certifying body of your choice.

Those looking for the entry-level certification offered by PMI (see step 4) can achieve 23 hours of credits through PMI’s online course on “project management basics.” Those looking for more units and those looking for certification outside of PMI can look for accredited institutions that offer courses PMI such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Continuing Education.

Step 3, Optional: Sit for Entry-Level Certification Exams

Project Management Institute (PMI) – Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)

For those who wish to begin to distinguish themselves in work, job applications, or for graduate school applications, PMI offers an entry-level certification called the PMI-CAPM. To qualify for this exam, applicants must have a high school diploma or higher and 23 hours of project management education. The test itself is 150 questions, which each participant has five hours to complete. Those who pass the test are certified for five years.

Scrum Alliance (SA) – Certified Scrum Master (CSA)

Appearing in more than 20,000 job postings in 2019, the demand for the SA-CSA certification is growing. If you’re interested in building your career on managing agile processes and developing and sustaining complex products, earning this certification can be a great way to create professional distinction. To sit for this exam, candidates need to take an in-person 16-hour course.

American Society for Quality (ASQ) – Six Sigma Yellow Belt Certification

For those interested in a data-fueled approach to project management, ASQ’s Six Sigma Yellow Belt Certification is a foundational certification that requires no experience or education. Those pursuing the yellow belt will be prepared to serve a support role to Six Sigma green and black belts.

Those who have worked as a project manager for a longer period of time can apply for higher level certifications (profiled in the final step) that are in-demand and that lead to higher salaries.

Step 4, Optional: Get an MBA in Project Management (Two Years)

While an MBA or master’s degree is not required to become a project manager, engaging in post-baccalaureate education can be an attractive option for undergraduates whose degrees are outside of project management, those looking for salary increases, those looking for more responsibility, or those who want to be more effective project managers.

To qualify for an MBA in project management, whether online or on-campus, applicants must have an earned bachelor’s degree. Because MBA programs vary widely, it’s important to read through admissions websites closely and/or to speak with an admissions officer. Some MBA programs require GMAT scores, some MBA programs provide circumstances for GMAT waivers, and others do not require GMAT scores at all. GPA requirements also vary widely.

Online programs, like the MBA in project management offered by Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), prepares graduates to effectively manage projects and become proficient in the technology needed for all sizes of business. The 36-credit-hour program can be completed in a year. Coursework includes project management, a seminar in project management, project management for PMP certification, and quantitative analysis for decision-making. In addition to distinguishing graduates at project management professionals, SNHU is a registered education provider (REP) for PMI.

On-campus MBAs are also available, like the MBA in project management at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The 36-credit program includes courses such as accounting analysis for decision-making, economic theory and policy, managerial economics, and strategic management and policy. The program is designed to provide intensive business education to those who want to advance in their careers, and provides night class options for flexibility.

Step 5, Optional: Apply for Higher-Level Project Management Certifications (Variable Timeline)

Each certifying organization listed in the previous step also offers higher-level certifications that provide credibility to a project manager’s years of experience—and can come with a pay bump as well.

Project Management Institute (PMI) – Project Management Professional (PMP)

For those really looking for leverage in the job market, the PMP certification from the Project Management Institute is the gold standard, appearing in nearly 70,000 job postings for project managers in 2019—a demand that is 70 percent higher than any other project management certification.

For high school graduates looking to earn a PMP certification, a minimum of five years (7,500 hours) of project management is required to become certified. For those with a bachelor’s degree, a minimum of three years (4,500 hours) of project management experience is required to become certified. This work can be paid or unpaid.

Scrum Alliance – Advanced Certified Scrum Master (A-CSM) or Certified Scrum Professional ScrumMaster (CSP-SM)

Those who have worked for at least one year as a CSM can level-up to e an A-CSM after attending and completing all course requirements for on A-CSM certified course.

Those working for two years as a CSM, have earned an A-CSM, and have attended and completed all the requirements of a CSP-SM course can achieve the title of ScrumMaster—the highest level of certification offered to project management professionals by Scrum Alliance.

American Society for Quality (ASQ) – Six Sigma Green or Black Belt

Appearing in more than 1,600 job listings in 2019, the ASQ Six Sigma Green Belt is a step up from the entry-level yellow belt. This is available to tose working three years in the Six Sigma framework. Also, they must have a full-time, paid role.

Appearing in almost 1,000 job listings in 2019, the ASQ Six Sigma Black Belt is the highest level of Six Sigma skills and expertise. These professionals do not need green belt certification, but do need two completed Six Sigma projects with signed affidavits, or one completed Six Sigma project with a signed affidavit and three years of Six Sigma work experience. This work must be done within the context of full-time paid role.

Helpful Resources for Project Managers

Being a good project manager is a lifelong journey requiring professionals to connect, learn, and influence one another. In addition, because the future of project management as a profession is not yet assured, membership in professional organizations provides these professionals with a platform to amplify what they do and maintain best practices for how they do it.

In addition to the resources mentioned throughout this article, here are helpful resources for project managers.

  • International Project Management Association (IPMA)
  • The Association for Project Managers (APM)
  • American Management Association (AMA)
  • Projects In Controlled Environments (PRINCE2)
  • The American Academy of Project Management (AAPM)
Becca Brewer, MEd
Becca Brewer, MEd

Becca Brewer is building a better future on a thriving earth by healing herself into wholeness, divesting from separation, and walking the path of the loving heart. Previously to her journey as an adventurer for a just, meaningful, and regenerative world, Becca was a formally trained sexuality educator with a master of education.

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