Back to school




Higher education is a hot commodity. Each year, more college graduates are heading back to school, hoping a professional degree will help them land a more rewarding—and lucrative—career.

In 2012, for the first time, one in three adults in countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development held a tertiary qualification, such as a degree from a college, university or vocational school. And in the United States, individuals who have enrolled in or completed a graduate degree program (36 million) now outnumber those with only a bachelor's degree (30 million). But as the number of global degree holders continues to rise, so do employers’ academic requirements. In the United States, for example, the number of managerial and professional office jobs that require a master's degree is expected to increase by 24 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

For project professionals looking to outpace the competition, this trend has made earning an advanced degree a top priority. While the MBA is the most popular post-graduate business degree, some practitioners are choosing to hone their expertise by obtaining a Master of Project Management (MPM) or a Doctorate of Project Management (DPM) (see “Three Degrees of Project Management” sidebar).

The University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) in Sydney, Australia offers both an MPM and an MBA with project management concentration. Shankar Sankaran, PhD, a professor in organizational project management at UTS, notes that class sizes have seen a steady uptick, increasing 25 percent over the last 10 years.

But to choose the right program, prospective students must understand why they want to pursue an advanced degree in the first place, says Carl Brede-noord, PMP, a consultant and project engineer who recently completed an MBA at the University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa. Only then can project professionals fill in the next two parts of the equation: when and where.

“You really have to have a deep think about what you want to achieve and why you want to do it,” says Mr. Bredenoord, who also has a master's degree in electrical engineering. “You have to be very honest with yourself.”


“You really have to have a deep think about what you want to achieve and why you want to do it. You have to be very honest with yourself.”

—Carl Bredenoord, PMP, Cape Town, South Africa

Those internal conversations can be difficult, he says, but they're necessary. “It's a lot of work to choose, but you're putting a lot of money and time into it.”

Whether they decide to pursue an MBA, MPM, PhD or DPM, project managers shouldn't forget three other letters when making the decision to go back to school: ROI. While an advanced degree might mean more cash in the long run, higher education requires a significant up-front investment.

In Australia, for example, an MPM program can cost as much as AUD37,000, with costs comparable in the United States and the United Kingdom. An MBA at a top-level school can run in the six figures. And while some countries, like Germany, partially or fully subsidize advanced degrees, many graduate students have to take out hefty student loans. In the United States, 40 percent of the US$1.1 trillion in outstanding student debt was used to finance graduate or professional degrees.

Still, many project practitioners see a graduate education as a worthwhile investment. MBA candidates in the United Kingdom, for instance, expect to see a 153 percent salary boost, while those in India expect a bump of almost 390 percent, according to QS, a global MBA networking association. Furthermore, after 10 years in the workforce, a master's degree is worth US$15,000 more annually than a bachelor's degree, according to a study conducted by job search site TheLadders.

But the payoff may not materialize immediately upon matriculation. Instead, it might set a project manager apart when it comes time to lobby for a promotion or change organizations.

“In my case, the degree offered access to employment opportunities and provided recognition and credibility,” says Jaume Barceló, CAPM, PMP, project manager at PSS Tecnologías de la Información in Barcelona, Spain. He earned his master's in project management after nearly two decades in the workforce.


Graduate Certificate in Project Management

These certificates provide an introduction to project management fundamentals. “The graduate certificate is useful for those who want to acquire some basics—for example, an architect who needs project management skills or functional managers who want to interact with project managers,” says Shankar Sankaran, PhD, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.

Master of Project Management (MPM)

A broad program that teaches advanced project management methodologies and strategies along with basic business and management theory. Some schools offer specialized degrees in areas including program management, project governance, risk management and international project management.

PhD in Project Management

A terminal degree that focuses on cross-functional management of projects, programs and portfolios. Candidates also conduct research and write and defend a dissertation.


Many project practitioners see a graduate education as a worthwhile investment. MBA candidates in the United Kingdom, for instance, expect to see a 153 percent salary boost, while those in India expect a bump of almost 390 percent.

Source: QS

“In my case, the degree offered access to employment opportunities and provided recognition and credibility.”

—Jaume Barceló, CAPM, PMP, PSS Tecnologías de la Información, Barcelona, Spain

Tim Henson, PMP, found that his Master of Science in Project Management (MSPM) from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville bettered not just his career, but his organization as well, which gained a more valuable, well-rounded project leader.

Mr. Henson worked as a senior project manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA, while he earned his MSPM. He completed his program five months before a two-year, 10,000-user, high-risk project closed. He said the timing meant he was often taking direct knowledge from a class and applying it the next day at work. The 122-person team wrapped up the project on schedule with a 5 percent cost variance. That success, along with his improved risk management, quality management and virtual teaming skills, got him noticed. In April 2015, Mr. Henson was promoted to program manager.

“Being viewed by peers and executive management as capable, organized and able to get things done is important,” he says. “At work, I get the most complex assignments, and management often wants to spread me across multiple areas for input into other projects.”

Filling in skills gaps or keeping up with changes in the field is another strong driver for practitioners looking to continue their education. Chi-vonne Algeo, PhD, is course director and senior lecturer at UTS. Years before beginning her doctoral research, she enrolled in UTS's master's program in project management as a way to experience new project approaches.

“I knew there must be more to managing projects than following existing paradigms,” she says. “The organization I was working for was using an outdated methodology and projects were being managed inefficiently, with key opportunities often missed. I wanted to explore different approaches based on sound research that had been proven to work.”


Choosing the right time to leap back into the classroom—be it online or brick-and-mortar—can have as much to do with market forces as personal desire. Mr. Bredenoord was working as an oil and gas project engineer in Singapore when he decided to pursue an MBA in 2012. Why then? A lull in his project roster gave him the time to make good on a long-held desire to go back to school.

Dr. Sankaran notes that UTS has seen spikes in enrollment driven by various market and industry factors. For example, an uptick in Australia's mining sector led to increased demand for project managers with graduate degrees. And when the country's defense ministry implemented a push for project professionals to pursue university qualifications, there was a corresponding rise in enrollment at the school.

“I've kept in touch with people from my program. When something comes up, or I have an idea about something, it's easy to pick up the phone and call them.”

—Carl Bredenoord, PMP

Unlike in some fields, where jumping straight from an undergraduate degree to a graduate program is common, the variety of programs available to project professionals argues for at least a few years of in-the-field experience before heading back for another round of schooling.

For his part, Mr. Barceló recommends between eight and 10 years in the professional environment. This will give project managers a sense of what it takes to manage timelines and teammates—and what they need to learn to be successful. At that point, learning next-level management theories can provide a much-needed supplement to on-the-job experience. A formal education program offers project managers the chance to “think abstractly and to seek the conceptual basis of arguments and situations,” he says—an alternative to model-based decision-making that many project managers fall back on in the field.


Matching a project manager's motivations with the right program requires diligent research. Practitioners should check that programs have been accredited by professional organizations such as PMI and be sure their modes of teaching (online versus in-class) align with their personal preferences. Some programs cater to working professionals while others may offer specialized training for project managers in certain fields, such as healthcare or IT.

Project professionals also need to consider what level of program will work best for them. UTS, for example, offers a graduate certificate, which teaches basic methodologies such as those found in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). The master's program, on the other hand, caters to those aspiring to carve out a long-term project management career or move into a more senior role in the field. Still others move on to doctoral programs at other schools, with the intention of pursuing careers in research and academia, says Dr. Sankaran.


“Being viewed by peers and executive management as capable, organized and able to get things done is important.”

—Tim Henson, PMP, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA


To help degree-seekers meet more targeted career goals, UTS has recently tailored some of its curricular offerings to appeal to subsets of the project management field, including systems thinking and management of complex projects. It even offers a specialized degree in project risk management.

For many prospective students, choosing the right school requires assessing both personal needs and professional goals. When Mr. Bredenoord decided to pursue his MBA, he first looked at highly reputable programs in the Asia Pacific region, near his then-home of Singapore. Two factors turned him off that path. He was most interested in course-work related to leadership development, change management and corporate strategy development, but none of the programs seemed to offer curricula that would help him advance his project management career in these areas. Then there was the price tag: The nearby schools he looked into cost as much as €50,000 a year.

The University of Cape Town, on the other hand, offered a modular program that met Mr. Bredenoord's professional needs and only required two weeks of class time three times a year over a two-year period. Even taking into account flights to South Africa—not incidentally, his home country—the program was cheaper than those he'd already rejected. He also was able to participate in an exchange program with the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Mr. Bredenoord's advice—other than to be cost-conscious—is to dig deep into a school's alumni network to find “role models,” graduates who have landed positions and built careers similar to what a prospective student is looking for. Where they've gone can be a good indication of where future graduates may go as well.

Project Management Educators: Take your coursework to the next level with the curricula and resources available at

When it comes to the ROI of his MBA, Mr. Bredenoord points to those networks as the single biggest benefit. “The ability to build those personal relationships, you can't put a number on it, but it's a definitive gain,” he says. “I've kept in touch with people from my program. When something comes up, or I have an idea about something, it's easy to pick up the phone and call them.”

After all, as he points out, the vast majority of people in graduate programs are there because they want to learn a specific skill set, and that creates strong bonds within a cohort. Those relationships, not the fatter paycheck and corner office, may be the most enduring benefit of heading back to school. PM