≡ Menu

Do I need a project management degree?

Statuette

Will a degree in project management help your career?

Recently someone got in contact with me to ask about how to get into project management. I thought I’d repeat here what I said to her, in case anyone else finds it useful. She wrote:

I have been advised that you have to do a degree in a particular subject e.g. engineering, do project management training e.g. PMI, PRINCE2 etc and work your way up in order to become a project manager.  Is this true? On the other hand, I have been advised to do a degree in project management and do work experience in a particular field to build up your experience.

So, do you need a degree in project management to become a project manager?

Firstly, I should say that I don’t think you require a degree in a particular subject in order to become a project manager – both my degrees are in English Literature and I work as an IT project manager in the healthcare sector. But you will benefit from a project management qualification such as PMP, CAPM or PRINCE2 in order to get a job as a project manager.

Having said that, this might be different if you want to work in a non-office/non-generalist field such as architecture or civil engineering. For all that project management is mainly transferable skills I wouldn’t know where to start with building shopping centres or roads after the years doing what I do.

Personally, I think employers value work experience over a degree, so a degree in project management, while it will show that you have the technical and soft skills, will not ensure you a job. What I would do is this: get a degree in a subject I enjoy and could find work in, and then add project management as a specialism later through targeted work experience and certificates. Oh, that’s what I actually did do.

Having a degree is a useful back up in case you change your mind later about wanting to work in project management. If you really want a project management degree, there are lots of Masters level courses that offer professionals with experience the ability to codify that through academic and practical study. So if you do want to ‘prove’ your skills, I would suggest doing so at a later date with one of those once you have some work experience to your name. The risk of a undergraduate degree in project management is that you actually find out you don’t much like it after all and then you’re stuck with it.

 

Please note that this is my personal opinion and that I cannot give tailored career advice over email. I do have some resources for students here and you can find my views on whether CAPM or PRINCE2 is the right choice for you here.

12 comments… add one

  • Kathi 5/02/2014, 7:05 pm

    I completely agree with Elizabeth. I have an IT degree and had a career in “programming/analysis”, then earned my PMP (I’m in the United States). It has been a great help to know what the developers are up against when implementing projects. Also, to qualify for the PMP certification test you must have experience hours, so expertise in ‘somthing other than project management’ is quite helpful.

    • Elizabeth 15/02/2014, 3:46 pm

      That’s true, and something I hadn’t really considered – being 100% project management, if you know what I mean, doesn’t necessarily give you the real-world work experience to empathise with other team members or to know when they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes! A broad background and experience outside of managing projects is something else that I know employers look for.

  • Geoff Crane 6/02/2014, 2:18 pm

    I teach at a college that offers a one-year graduate certificate in project management. We don’t offer co-op opportunities, but require our students to complete an actual Capstone project. Another, nearby college goes the co-op route. Their program is 1.5 years with 6 months spent actually working in a project environment. The idea behind both these programs is to give students new to the discipline a much deeper understanding of project management than a 4-day boot camp and, in the other college’s case, expose them directly to day-to-day project environments.

    What’s nice about these programs is that they’re not undergraduate degrees – if you don’t like it, the time and cost investment isn’t as great – but neither will you forget everything you’ve learned as soon as you step out the door – there’s some depth there.

    However, I think you’re right – employers value experience over education. I’ll even go so far to say that employers value the opinions of people they already know and trust over either experience OR education (i.e., their network). So while formal education is never a bad idea, students need to set their expectations accordingly. Doors to employment will not magically fly open as soon as the ink dries on their degree or diploma.

    • Elizabeth 15/02/2014, 3:44 pm

      That sounds like a good “compromise” for want of a better word. A rounded, well-thought out education, coupled with practical real-world experience. Thanks for adding that suggestion to the mix, Geoff!

  • Ralf Jnr 6/02/2014, 10:25 pm

    I have a degree in Project Management, and it took 3 years of full time study. I also hold Prince2, MSP, P3O, ISEB PPSO and have been a contributor on PMI’s Portfolio Management Body of Knowledge; I feel fairly qualified to comment from both sides of the fence.

    The article mentions Project Management being transferable skills, and therefore a degree gives a greater understanding of Project Management than any other qualification, and these skills will be useful in many other occupations.

    What a degree gives a person is reading many points of view in Project Management, and not one that is aligned to PMI or Prince2. A Project Management degree also teaches in depth techniques in areas such as planning, resourcing, project accounting, risks, value management, problem solving etc, which the other ‘1 week courses’ do not teach; When that person has added relevant experience, they will know when to pull these techniques out of the bag and rely on them in the right situations. I still find many people in their twilight years of their career who struggle, with a lack of the relevant hard project skills.

    I have also worked with others who have a degree in Project Management and they seem more equipped to handle the many varied situations that Projects throw at you.

    I think the conclusion is, if you want to become proficient in Project Management, this takes years of experience, but if you want to get there quicker with a stronger foundation, then a degree will help.

    • Elizabeth 15/02/2014, 3:43 pm

      Ralf, thanks for this balanced reply; it’s useful to see your views from both sides of the argument. I agree that a degree will give you a strong foundation, but from an employer’s perspective I think they will also be looking for experience. As you suggest, this combination gives a very rounded project management skillset.

  • PM Hut 10/02/2014, 9:57 pm

    A quick point to ponder: The best project managers out there have not a single degree in project management. Younger generation, though, does not believe in no degrees in anything, and they are all getting certified.

    • Elizabeth 15/02/2014, 3:42 pm

      I think that’s partly to do with the fact that getting a degree these days is very costly and employers are not paying for them. If you can get ahead in your career without one, and your company won’t invest in a degree for you, it’s a difficult choice to make to invest a lot of cash in a degree that isn’t 100% going to advance your career path.

  • Dasha Golubeva 19/02/2014, 2:06 pm

    Hi Elizabeth, I think this is one of the hottest questions for those who are about to start their journey in project management. And I have to agree with what you said: PMI certification is definitely not a must. As we were making some PM myth busting, we found out that 2/3 of CIOs see the certification as a valuable benefit, not a necessity (http://www.wrike.com/blog/02/12/2014/Top-Five-Project-Management-Myths-Busted-NEW-INFOGRAPHIC). We also see the rise of accidental project management. Overall, I believe that primarily, experience is key.

    • Elizabeth 20/02/2014, 10:28 am

      I think that understanding what employers want is the most important thing. Different fields and industries may value different things – experience or qualifications, or a mix of both. It’s interesting to see that
      your research shows that CIOs don’t require certification as essential: I think that speaks to the fact that experience is valued in the IT industry.

  • Jonathan 24/07/2014, 8:01 pm

    Hi Elizabeth,
    I’m not sure if this is still an active thread, but I found the comments here useful. I have been searching for an answer to this question, but I have not found a good answer yet. The answers to this question I found basically try to answer the question: will a PM degree help me to get a PM job? (Answer: not really, experience is more important).

    I’m one of those accidental project managers with a scientific degree who has been promoted into a PM role. I want to know if the process of getting the degree would be useful in my new role as project manager. The superficial answer would be: yes, it can’t hurt. However, it is hugely expensive in time and money costs. So, does it provide me with anything that I can’t get through experience? Do I NEED it?

    Could I get the information I need from a graduate certificate (i.e. a half-masters type program)? Would an inexpensive 2 week certificate program (basically prep courses for the PMP and Prince2 exams) be sufficient? Could I just read the PMBOK?

    • Elizabeth 25/07/2014, 8:35 am

      Hi Jonathan, well, it’s active in that I check every comment and try to reply to them all! Welcome. So, will the process of getting a degree be useful in your new role. You’re right, it can’t hurt. But no, you don’t need it. Your bosses already think you are capable of doing the project management role as you’ve been promoted into that position. Congratulations! It’s a great career move and I hope you’ll enjoy being a PM.

      In terms of doing a qualification to help you do your new job better, then an inexpensive certificate programme would give you the building blocks of being a good PM. After that, you can decide what you other training you feel is appropriate and there is a lot of it to choose from, including degrees. If you want to start with an even cheaper option, borrow the PRINCE2 manual or the PMBOK from a friend and read them… but be prepared to fall asleep over them.

      There is also a new framework that wasn’t around at the time I wrote this article, called Praxis, which covers pretty much everything you would want to know about managing a project available free online here: http://www.praxisframework.org/

      If you do decide to go for a certificate, as you are an accidental project manager you might not yet have the experience to go for PMP, so a CAPM prep course might be more tailored to you. There’s a discussion about the CAPM/PRINCE2 choice here that you might find interesting.

      Hope that helps.

Leave a Comment