Project Management Institute

One foot in the door


A lack of experience doesn't have to stop recent graduates from breaking into project management.

The idea of securing a first job in project management can be downright unnerving— even for graduates of the most prestigious universities, with the highest marks and the most impressive list of extracurricular activities.

It isn't that recent graduates aren't confident their degrees have prepared them for project management. Rather, many believe their lack of on-the-job experience presents an insurmountable roadblock at the beginning of their career path. And the age-old quagmire that one must have experience to land a job, but a job to gain experience, certainly doesn't help.

But experience doesn't necessarily mean having a project manager line on your résumé.

“College students are already project managers,” says Carol Jensen, PMP, business planning manager, HP, Palo Alto, California, USA. “In order to be successful students, they have to keep a schedule, be organized, work on a team and adhere to a budget. Essentially, the project they're planning is their college career. The experience is transferable.”

Simply having a diploma, however, doesn't mean a person can excel as a project manager. When the time comes, those new to the workforce still must convince potential employers they possess the moxie to direct a successful project.


Before heading into an interview, recent graduates should brush up on project management terminology and methodologies to convince potential employers they can at least “talk the talk.”

Attending project management conferences can teach recent graduates basic and advanced knowledge and how to present their ideas as a project manager would, says Enrique Cappella, PMP, human resource business consultant, Unisys, San José, Costa Rica. “Through education, a person starts to acquire the knowledge of concepts, tools and methodologies necessary for success.”

For recent graduates who didn't study project management methodology, Ms. Jensen recommends enrolling in an online course or reading an introduction to a project management book to get a foothold. “You have to know the terminology, like earned value analysis and Gantt chart, as well as understand how to manage risk and communicate effectively with sponsors, stakeholders and your team,” she says.

Along with getting the lingo and concepts down, it's time to start acting like a project manager. “It's very important that an aspiring project manager be able to show an employer that they have the ability to put a plan in motion and see it through to fruition,” Ms. Jensen says. She suggests putting together a simple project plan and taking it to an interview. “The idea is to showcase a person's organization, time management and budgeting skills,” she says.

Fortunately, project management can be transferred to many instances in life, not just in the workplace. Showing that a person has successfully managed projects—no matter the project—and applied project management principles will catch employers’ attention, says Luciano Garagna, PMP. An adjunct professor at the University of Verona, Verona, Italy, Mr. Garagna also works as a consultant to help clients hire and recruit project managers.

“Project management is a kind of transferable competence,” he says. “Life is filled with every kind of project. Even getting a job interview is a project. Understanding this point and being able to talk about completing tasks like a project manager is of fundamental importance.”

For instance, he says, if a recent graduate has work experience delivering pizzas, he or she can show a potential employer the effective procedure used for doing so, including identifying activities, ranking the activities in sequential order and assessing risk. “That would be very interesting to a potential employer,” Mr. Garagna says.

The Heart of the Matter

Not every company is looking for someone with loads of experience. Many employers believe it's better to hire people for values than for skills. “A person can be trained for skills. That's very easy,” Mr. Garagna says. “But if they have the wrong values, it makes it difficult to hire that person.” And what are those values? Mr. Garagna expects professionalism, integrity, commitment, openness and attentiveness to customers’ needs.

Standing Out

Would-be project managers are arming themselves with one more tool to set themselves apart when approaching potential employers. Many choose to obtain the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM®) credential as students—instead of waiting until they enter the professional world.

That's what Shaden Katbeh, CAPM, did while working toward an executive master of business administration and specialized master in project and program management degrees from ESC Lille School of Management, Lille, France. Earlier this year, she accepted her first job in project management as a monitoring and evaluating specialist for CARANA Corp., a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor in Jerusalem, Israel. Her employer told her, “Even though you lack the experience required for the position, your education and certifications clearly reflect your abilities.”

Ms. Katbeh says obtaining the CAPM credential was an easy decision. “I wanted to start my career path in project management and tried to add value to my education and support it with an international certification that could demonstrate my knowledge and ability to apply what I learned to real-life scenarios,” she says.

Megan Weatherford, CAPM, decision support analyst with Acxiom Corp., an information management company in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, also obtained the CAPM credential as a student. She uses project management methodologies on a daily basis and believes the CAPM credential played an important role in getting the new position. During the interview process, she says, she was frequently asked about her project management experience, and having the credential showed her employer she was serious about her career.

”[Employers] are usually impressed by a college graduate that has the ambition and ability to be certified by an organization like PMI,” she says.


People skills, such as communication and the ability to work well on a team, are equally as important to an employer. It's essential to display the ability to integrate with others and negotiate a role on a team, Mr. Cappella says.

Ms. Jensen says successful project managers are driven by a “can-do attitude” and the determination to roll up their sleeves and help steer a project through rocky waters, no matter how difficult it gets.

Of course, that first job may not immediately appear. Above all, recent graduates shouldn't be discouraged if the job-search process proves difficult. “Accept work on any sort of project,” Ms. Jensen says. “Even if you don't have the title of project manager, you're still gaining important experience.” C

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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