Should I become a project manager? (Mailbag)

A recent email from the mailbag echoes other email collecting dust in the mailbag, so I figured I’d beat the rush and answer here.

Hello I will be graduating college in two weeks and want to more about certain careers.  Project management is one of them and thought you might have some insight, based on your blog.  I have a few questions that I hoped you could answer.

Signed – Mr. Student who wants a job

Here are his questions, with answers.

Q: As a graduate how do I get on the path towards project management?

For most of the industries in the world you never start out as a project manager. That’d be like getting off a bus in L.A. and becoming the director of a $200 million Hollywood film. You have to earn responsibility through experience, which makes sense. Often people who eventually become project managers start out in more junior roles and after earning credibility move into project management. Without front line experience it’s easy for the project manager to have no clue as to what she’s doing, or have no idea how insulting or destructive their decisions are to folks in specialized roles. MBA graduates who enter the workforce with little other experience beyond MBA-structured internships have similar challenges.

There are exceptions. Some schools have programs that focus on management, or even project management, and likely know of corporations that have entry level project manager roles. Microsoft does – it’s called program manager. You start with very small slice of a project and if you do well, that area of responsibility grows. If you don’t do so well, you hit the streets.

2. Are there entry-level type project management positions?

See above. They do exist, but they’re industry specific as they should be. You might need to do an internship, or work for less than you’d like, to get in the door.

3. What skills should I develop to market myself as a project manager?

This is easy: WORK ON A PROJECT. Go make something. Grab a friend, build a website, or a blog, or something. Anything. Build a house. Build a couch. Make a movie. Volunteer your PM skills wherever you can in return for a reference. The best way to market yourself is to get experience, as there is nothing more dangerous for the world than someone who wants to be a project manager but has never managed a project in their life.

If you’re already at work in a non-PM role, tell your boss about your interest to have a more leadership role, and suggest small projects you can manage that are related to your current work. If you’re willing to do it on a volunteer basis, and sell it right, often you can get PM experience without having to risk your current job at all. Then you’ll know if you like it or are good at it, before taking a bigger leap.

4. Any other advice?

If you’re still in college invest heavy in finding other people who want the same kind of work you do. The network you make in school is incredibly valuable. A year or two from now you might be looking for a new job, or still trying to find a PM role, and the number of people you know in the field will help tremendously. One of the best things I got from going to CMU was a circle of friends who went to work in the same industry as me, and could provide advice, job leads or connections I couldn’t make otherwise.

15 Responses to “Should I become a project manager? (Mailbag)”

  1. striker17

    can u provide me the pratical best practices of PM. or How to start PM kindly mention the steps and also refer the books of PM.

    Do more posts on this.

  2. Phil Simon

    I couldn’t agree with Scott more. Working on a project is an invaluable experience. Even a bad project. Even a horrible one. If nothing else, then you’ll learn what not to do.

  3. Mike Nitabach

    Becoming a project manager (PM) sounds a lot like becoming the principal investigator (PI) of a scientific research project. You work your way up to being a PM/PI by being good at doing the “line work” that goes into a project, but have essentially no training or experience at managing a team. Some end up figuring it out, and some end up sucking.

  4. Kingsley Tagbo

    This is a good post that summarizes why functional hands-on experience is required or valued in project management positions.

    It explains why people with good educational backgrounds (MBAs, etc.) often miss it when it comes to functional hands-on experience.

    Scott, I agree with you that project management experience has to be earned not through certifications or educational but through functional hands-on experience

  5. gary

    i am currentl pursuing a doctorial greee in information assurance. Along the way I have been expose to project and risk management areas. Current I am working as an bussiness accountant however I would like to pursue a carreer as an project manager or infomration assurance professional. I am also, thinking of starting my own company.

  6. Mary Malmros

    I’m fascinated at the idea of students who think that they’d like to be project managers. It’s a job that is so hard to accurately describe, in terms of what the day-to-day is like — and so far removed from a typical student’s experience — that I can’t imagine why a student would say, “Yes, this is what I want to do.”

    The proliferation of project management certification programs makes me wonder what kind of “project managers” we’ll see in years to come. Programs like this could teach some tools and methodologies, but can’t teach the skills and knowledge that really make it possible. For example, in project management you’re going to be directly in the path of a lot of criticism, some of which is legitimately about you, and a lot of which has nothing to do with you. You need to be able to take the useful information from that criticism, hear what’s not being said, and not internalize the stuff that’s not yours. You have to function in the hot seat, and not be freaked out by it, but you can’t like it that the seat is hot — that’s the same as liking to be in a state of crisis, and if you like crises, you’ll allow them to continue, or even create them. That’s just two off the top of my head. You may be able to understand them intellectually, but I don’t see where you learn either of those in college or in a certification course — they’re pretty much school-of-hard-knocks skills.

  7. Andrew

    I worked as a design engineer for nearly 10 years, and experienced most projects being run poorly. After being retrenched in the recession I decided I’d like to learn how projects are meant to be run, and enrolled in a masters of project management course. Superb education in project management, but there are next to no entry level PM jobs out there even with project experience. If you don’t move into it within the organisation you’re already in, it seems like an impossible nut to crack.

  8. bijay

    I am currently studying Btech final year in civil engineering and I strongly want to be a good project manager and have been training myself throughly what should you prefer me to do further ?
    Shall I join MBA and have internships or shall I join an institute for certification ? Hope to know very soon.
    Thank you.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Internships are often the best way to both develop skills and grow your network to help find a job (if you do well with the internship, it’s natural that they’d consider offering you a full time job). An MBA or certificate might be helpful, but might not – some organizations think those things are important and some don’t.

  9. Natalia

    I am certified in Microsoft Excel and also in Microsoft Word, I also have much knowledge in graphic design. Could this help me get a job as a Project Manager say for an electrical company?



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