Looking to break into project management? Here's a crash course on the educational offerings that can give you an edge.
by Simon Kent
Not so long ago, project managers did most of their learning on the job. It wasn't ideal, but it worked for the most part.
“Historically, project management has been a profession that was unheard of prior to starting work,” says Ann Angus, general manager of Adept Knowledge Management, a project management training company in Aberdeen, Scotland.
All that's changing faster than you can say “on time and on budget.”
More than 3,300 institutions around the world teach about 5,700 courses centered on project management principles and content, according to a PMI 2008 global census.
Yet as more companies search for project talent that can truly deliver straight out of school, a skills gap is opening. Spotting an opportunity, universities and training companies around the world are more than happy to try to fill that gap with a bevy of project management offerings. Instead of loading up on tangential courses, aspiring project managers can now tailor their education to align with their career goals.
Tim Papich, PMP, zeroed in on construction management—what he calls “the original project management study course”—for his master's degree at the University of Colorado.
“The construction people have been studying schedules, budgets and control projects for a long time, since all of their work is a project by default,” he explains. “Now other professions are seeing the benefit of following schedules and budgets, etc.”
Mr. Papich says he believes his construction management degree gave him the leadership skills he needed to advance his career. And it turned out pretty well. Based in Denver, Colorado, USA, he's currently a project manager at consultancy JMT Inc. and adjunct professor at the University of Denver.
ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?
Some things you can't learn in a classroom, of course. Extracurricular activities, such as joining a PMI chapter, can also help kick-start a career in project management.
Belonging to relevant clubs and interest groups or scoring an internship for some on-the-job experience can be even more valuable than what you get out of books, says David Dunning, operations director at Corporate Project Solutions, an IT and project management consultancy in Marlow, England.
“At university, you can shape where you're going—as long as you make sure you get the exposure to the industry you need for your first job,” he says.
Sometimes you just have to dig in.
“Project management is predominantly learned by doing,” says Taralyn Frasqueri-Molina, CAPM, PMP, associate project manager at Walt Disney Animation Studios, Burbank, California, USA. “You can get the fundamentals in a course or training program, but the work experience, internships included, is the best way to get good at project management.”
The thought of trying to secure an internship can be daunting, but often you simply need to ask.
At a recent project management event, Mr. Dunning was approached by an intrepid individual armed with a résumé and boundless enthusiasm for getting into the profession.
“Sending your CV to someone speculatively isn't always going to get you noticed,” he says. “Having the gumption to be bold and talk to someone is far more impressive.”
Donating time can also help aspiring project managers pick up that much-needed experience in the trenches.
“Don't discount volunteering as a way to get project management experience,” Ms. Frasqueri-Molina says. Many not-for-profits, especially those involved in construction, “usually need people willing to manage a project pro bono,” she says.
Smaller not-for-profits might provide big opportunities. “In a small setting, you may be the only project manager and thus responsible for running the whole show,” she says.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Not all students know exactly what career path they want to follow until they spend time off campus. Some may head back to school after gaining experience. Mr. Papich, for example, worked in the construction industry for five years, then returned to college to earn his master's degree.
“After two or three years of professional experience, young professionals are ready to go back to the university for a master's degree,” says Thomas Stauffert, professor of project management at Hochschule Landshut, Landshut, Bavaria, Germany. “After this, training and educational programs should be taken on a regular basis.”
Academic institutions offering courses in project management at the undergraduate or graduate level can be found all over the world. And with so many project management degrees, training courses and certifications available, it can be difficult for students to decide which academic institution to attend.
One way to distinguish the serious contenders is to seek out a course accredited by PMI's Global Accreditation Center for Project Management Education Programs (GAC).
If nothing else, accreditation offers some kind of differential amongst the masses, says Herman Steyn, a professor of project management and program leader of the certificate program in project management at the University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa.
“The explosion of fly-by-night institutions might have been a blessing in disguise,” he says. “It leads to an increasing realization that a qualification is as reputable as the institution that awards it.”
All that time in academic settings can lead to unpleasant surprises as to how project management works outside the classroom, though. To ensure his students stay grounded in reality, Mr. Stauffert requires that they put their theoretical knowledge to the test by partnering with a company. “I always request that my students do their thesis in a real-world environment and solve a real-world problem,” he explains.
For other project managers, certifications can help them make their mark.
In the field for a few years, Ms. Frasqueri-Molina felt she hadn't come close to her career potential as a project manager. “Compared to most, I'd probably still be considered a newcomer,” she says.
Looking to boost her credibility and having the required experience, she decided to pursue the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential.
Having passed the exam in April, Ms. Frasqueri-Molina is already seeing a payoff. Studying for the exam has given her a raft of additional techniques and skills to apply in her current role devising methodologies to revamp failing projects.
Those new to project management no longer have the luxury of learning on the job. Feeling the pressure of a struggling economy, companies expect even new recruits to hit the ground running. Candidates who go in armed with a stellar skill set to start and then keep up their training will be in a class all their own. PM
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