Project Management Institute

The project management career handbook. Part 1

Getting the job




by Cindy Waxer

It doesn't matter if you're fresh out of college and applying for your very first job, reentering the workforce after some time off or just looking for a new position. Most project professionals could use a little assistance—or at least a refresher course—in everything from writing a top-grade cover letter to fielding tough interview questions.

Read on for some advice to help you get the job you want.



A cover letter is more than pretty packaging for your résumé. It's a potential employer's first indication of who you are and what you can do. Plus, it can make the difference between an employer calling you in for an interview…or filing your CV away with a sea of others that didn't make the cut.

How can you ensure your cover letter is working for you—and not against you?


Are you applying to manage software delivery projects or to work for an international engineering firm? The first step is “deciding who the cover letter is intended for,” advises Dhana Kothari, president of D2i Consulting, a project management consultancy in Unionville, Ontario, Canada. “Focus on the organization you want to work for, rather than create a mass mailing.”


Distinguish yourself from other applicants by describing how your unique project management skill set can contribute directly to a particular project or organization.

“To stand out from the crowd, your cover letter should refer directly to the project management position and relate aspects of your work history to the role,” says Corinne Hutchinson, marketing manager at the recruitment website in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England.


For many employers, having the right education and credentials are seen as prerequisites—but these accomplishments shouldn't be the focus of your cover letter. Instead, you need to show that you've made an effort to understand the organization, its objectives and even some of its challenges.

TIP: Build a binder of your projects over the last five years,
suggests Dhanu Kothari, D2i Consulting, Union-ville, Ontario, Canada. Learn to tell a story about each project:

  • What was unique about them in terms of technology, integration, management, schedule, etc.?
  • What did you learn from the experience?
  • What worked well? What did not?
  • How can you transfer lessons from these projects to new opportunities?

    Visualize telling a story to someone and close the loop with a connection between the story and the client's needs.

“Learn a company's pain points, find out the issues it's facing and how you can help,” Ms. Kothari says.

Gain an understanding of the organization's challenges regarding growth, product strategies, customer service, etc. This information is usually available from annual reports and the official website.

Then think in terms of how your skills and experience can be made relevant to the organization's needs. For example: “One of the challenges of the telecom industry is to innovate and implement new solutions quickly and be ahead of the competition. This requires agility, experience and flexibility for managing successful projects. I have the necessary skills and experience, as listed on my résumé, and I am confident that I can make a successful contribution to your organization in these areas.”


When writing a cover letter, “it's a good idea to illustrate examples of projects you have managed in the past, including names of employers, industry and dates to add credibility and make it eye-catching,” Ms. Hutchinson advises. “Include resources (people, materials, equipment), scope (project size, objectives, goals), time (task duration) and money (costs, budgets, profits).”


No matter how much research you do or how much experience you have, a poorly designed cover letter can kill your chances.

“A cover letter should contain clear sections, including an introduction, work history and a paragraph on your interest in the position,” Ms. Hutchin-son says.



A well-crafted résumé should be built like the human form: a series of succinct parts that are carefully connected to illustrate an impressive body of work.

Keep your résumé concise; you may only have mere seconds to convey your skills and accomplishments. In fact, one in five hiring managers say they spend 30 seconds or less looking at an applicant's résumé, according to the job site CareerBuilder.

Here's an anatomical breakdown to help you craft the best possible résumé:


For a while there, everyone was putting an objective section at the top of their résumé. The latest trend now, though, is to lead off with a summary of your career. In fact, 70 percent of hiring managers prefer to see a summary at the top of a résumé instead of an objective, according to a CareerBuilder survey of 2,878 U.S. hiring managers released in April.

Another good idea is to start off with a “summary of your skills that highlights the connection between your cover lever and your résumé,” Ms. Kothari says.

Tailor this section to suit a potential employer's industry, needs and culture. A summary like this is what first catches the eye of 40 percent of hiring managers, according to the survey.


Like it or not, “85 percent of project management is communication,” Ms. Kothari says. “The art and science of project management is getting work done through the active cooperation of others over whom you have no direct control.”

The means to achieve authority and collaboration is through outstanding language and interpersonal skills such as communication, facilitation, presentation, negotiation and team-building, she says—and your résumé should highlight these.

“Communication skills are what companies are looking for,” she explains. “How good are you at communicating? How good are you at negotiating and selling?”


The backbone of any résumé is a candidate's skills and experience. Make sure you “include practical examples that illustrate the most important skills for being a project manager, including planning, organization, problem solving, communication, leadership and negotiation,” Ms. Hutchinson says. “Also list what abilities you have developed through various projects in the past, such as delegation, defining expectations and conflict management.”

Draw attention to such areas of expertise as resource, cost or schedule management.

“These are fundamental skills that you need to bring out in your résumé and show that you have experience in,” says Martin Robinson, Slough, Berkshire, Englandbased project manager at the facilities management group Rentokil Initial.

For those new to the profession who don't have experience in agile or other particular techniques, “instead focus on your core competencies, especially communication,” he adds. “Some of these can be gained outside of a project management context, such as managing a budget.”

Developing the fundamental skills and experiences within a project context is preferable, though, and volunteering to work on projects is a great way to flesh out a résumé, Mr. Robinson adds.


A résumé shouldn't only reflect your triumphs. “Try to show any difficulties you may have encountered and how you resolved them,” Ms. Hutchinson says.

This demonstrates that you can deal with difficult situations. For example, if you went past the deadline for a project because of delays due to something out of your control, like equipment or resources that weren't delivered, explain how you negotiated with the supplier to reduce the cost.


Although many employers see your educational background as a minimum requirement, it's still important to include that information, as well as any ongoing training. With competition at an all-time high, such details can help separate you from the rest of the pack.

“Candidates need to graduate from a good school or university,” says Khin Suu Yin, a system administrator and analyst for Fong Lee Metal Industries Pte Ltd., an oilfield equipment manufacturer in Singapore. In her experience, “employers typically prefer to hire project managers with a master's degree or some kind of business degree.”

Credentials, such as Project Management Professional (PMP)®, also help job seekers rise to the top. Include these immediately following your name at the top of the document.


Non-work-related activities may not be core to a job description, but they can illustrate your ability to manage projects—especially if you're light on actual work experience.

“A project manager has to have some people skills to be able to make decisions,” Mr. Robinson says.

Your work with a professional association or leading projects for a local charity can help illustrate that ability.

“These activities are very important to include on your résumé. To a hiring manager, there's nothing like experience to show that you can run a project.”


Interviewing with a potential employer can be one of life's most hand-wringing experiences.

Fortunately, there is a way for project managers to prepare before sitting down in the hot seat.

“By doing your homework ahead of time, practicing and thinking about why an employer might ask you a particular question, you can really diminish some of the concerns you may have,” says Saman-tha Zupan, corporate communications manager at, a website where employees and job seekers anonymously post reviews of organizations.

When you're getting ready for your interview, practice sounding out how you would handle tough questions, she advises.


The Strangest of the Strange
We asked members of the PMI Career Central group on LinkedIn to tell us the most difficult question they have been asked in an interview:

“If you were a brick in a wall, which one would you be and why?”
After some thought, I said the brick in the middle. The line employees would be the foundation and the upper management would be the top layer, so I would be managing in the middle. I‘m not sure if that was a good answer, but I think it was just one of those curveball questions they ask to tell how analytically a person thinks. —Wanda Hodges, PMP, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, USA

“If you were an animal, which one would you be?”
I replied that I wouldn't know. It was the “question too many” in my opinion.
—Lyne Jubinville, PMP, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

How to Get Your Foot in the Door

Project managers need to have a large toolbox of skills and competencies at their disposal—which makes it all the more challenging for those new to the profession to garner an interview. Martin Robinson, Rentokil Initial, Slough, Berkshire, England, says that if you're a first-timer looking to maximize your opportunity to move into a project role, you should:

1 Show how serious you are about becoming a project manager by joining a professional association. Research some recent projects that impressed you and explain why you are interested in working on something like that. Try to get into the role of being a project manager.

2 Volunteer to work on—or, even better, lead—a project. This can be as small as organizing a fête for a not-for-profit.

3 Gain experience in the important project management competencies, such as attention to detail, timekeeping, running meetings and team management.


If a particular question has got you stumped, ask a follow-up query to get at why the interviewer would ask something like that.

Ms. Zupan suggests something along the lines of, “To help me best respond to the question you asked, can you give me an example of how this question relates to the work I would be doing at the company?”

And when thrown by an unusual question or two, keep your cool.

“When employers are asking what seem to be off-the-wall questions, there may not always be a right answer,” she says. “They're looking at the way you process tough problems when you're in the heat of the moment.”


The right follow-up plan after an interview can make the difference between a lengthy job search and a start date—even when you've lost all hope of getting a callback.

“Following up allows you to stand out from those who do not,” Ms. Hutchinson says. “Remember, people are busy—so the reason for not being contacted by a potential employer could be simply that they haven't had time. A follow-up note can prompt them and leave an impression on the recruiter that you are keen.”

Here are three fast and easy steps every project manager can take to follow up properly with a potential employer:


Twenty-two percent of hiring managers say they are less likely to hire someone if they don't send a thank-you note, according to an April CareerBuilder survey.

Their reasoning? It shows a lack of follow-through on the part of the potential employee and shows that perhaps he or she wasn't all that interested in the position.



Whether you send it via postal worker, email or carrier pigeon, the main goal should be getting the note in the hands of your potential employer as soon as possible. According to the CareerBuilder survey, 89 percent of hiring managers say it's perfectly acceptable to send a thank-you note via email.

Some people prefer to check back in by phone.

“Following up shows enthusiasm,” Mr. Robinson says. “So the day after your interview, or two days at most, you should be phoning back up.”


Express your enthusiasm about the job and remind the people who interviewed you about your qualifications for the position.

Use your follow-up with a potential employer as “an opportunity to say that you thought more about the organization's key issues and here are a few more ideas about how you'd get going on that project,” Ms. Zupan says.


You've been offered the position of project manager. You've nailed down your job description. And you understand your responsibilities.

Now comes the tough part: negotiating a salary.

Despite recent tough economic times in many parts of the world, it is well within your right to ask for an annual salary that meets your expectations.

Here are a few critical mistakes job candidates fall for when negotiating a salary:


Hiring managers around the globe have long heard promises of completing projects on time and on budget.

“That's old-school,” says David Barrett, program director at the Centre of Excellence in Project Management, Schulich Executive Education Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Instead, he suggests playing up your business skills and portraying yourself as a strategic partner worthy of a high-end salary. Candidates must move through the “I am a great project manager” part of the interview into the “I am bigger than just my project” aspects:

  • How did your work contribute to the overall goals or strategy of your organization, department or division?
  • How did your project affect the bottom line, the ROI?

“Highlight some ‘value add’ that your projects left behind for the next team: standard documentation, better information flow, a more mature project environment,” Mr. Barrett suggests. “These are things senior management wants to hear about. They're the signals that a candidate can do more than just deliver on budget, on time and within scope.”


If there's ever a time to supply your potential employer with details, it's now.

“It is difficult to negotiate salaries unless you are sure you are an asset the company can't do without,” Ms. Hutchinson says. “That's why it's a good idea to talk about how much value you can bring to the organization over the next few years and talk about specific ideas that you may have that could bring added value.”


Before entering into any negotiation, factor in “your needs, desires, wants and concerns,” says Mark Gordon, founder and partner of Vantage Partners, a negotiation and relationship management consulting firm in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Just be sure to figure out what your potential employer is hoping to take from the deal as well. After all, “the key to a successful negotiation is meeting the interests on both sides,” he says.


Just because some colleagues in your network are doing so isn't a valid reason to ask for a top-notch salary.

“If you're asking for more money, you honestly have to believe that you're worth it,” Mr. Barrett says. “If you don't believe it, don't bother asking.”

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