How to Become a Project Manager, According to Industry Experts

- Author: Becca Van Sambeck - Categories: ,

USC faculty members break down the steps to becoming a successful project manager, the career timeline, salary expectations and more.

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Project management has grown exponentially over the past few years, and those in the field are adept at executing projects, overseeing tasks and connecting teams within an organization.

It’s an appealing career path for people who love to multitask, enjoy collaborating and are interested in working in a variety of industries.

But how exactly do you become a project manager? And what kind of success can you find in the field?

To get answers to these questions and more, USC Online spoke with three USC Bovard College faculty members from the online Master of Science in Project Management (MSPM) programJennifer BakerMichael Fanning and John Jones.

What Is Project Management?

A project manager is someone who works with teams across a company to ensure communication is productive, tasks are being completed and teams are meeting their goals. They “should be a person who plans and implements strategic and tactical initiatives for an organization,” Baker noted.

PMs are also leaders within their organizations, Jones added, explaining that many companies are even changing the title to “project leaders” to reflect their importance.

“They actually are the ones who are the movers and the shakers, the ones who make everything happen. They’re not necessarily decision makers, but they communicate all the different aspects of whatever the endeavor is to all the various stakeholders,” Jones said.

As you can imagine, with all these responsibilities, project management is not a simple task. If it’s a career path you’re interested in, you should be prepared to work hard and wear many different hats.

“When you’re a project manager, you’re never given an easy job. It’s always a task that no one else wants and others have often failed at doing. If you like challenges, become a project manager,” Fanning laughed.

What Do Project Managers Do?

When it comes to a project manager’s daily tasks, many of them entail working directly with teams to assess their processes and what needs to be accomplished, according to Fanning.

“You’re reading the temperature of the room. You’re asking people for their advice. You’re giving them an opportunity to share information or, if need be, their concerns or ask for help. Every action you do, from the beginning of the day through the end, is the care and feeding of the team and the stakeholders,” Fanning explained.

Of course, it does vary based on the field — whether that’s in the public, private or nonprofit sector. No day will look the same depending on which industry you’re in and which project you’re overseeing, as they all have different requirements, responsibilities and expectations.

“The smaller the company, the more hats the project manager is expected to wear. The larger the company, the more refined and the more detailed the project manager is expected to be. So, it is something that varies greatly depending upon where the project manager works,” Baker said.

Still, tasks you can expect include developing ideas, creating teams, monitoring projects’ progresses, setting deadlines, managing internal communication, conducting meetings and evaluating the final project’s results, as well as the stakeholders’ response.

Ultimately, project managers need to be strong leaders, effective communicators and skilled at documentation.

How Do You Get Into Project Management?

If you’re interested in project management, you’ll find almost all organizations will require a bachelor’s degree, although it doesn’t necessarily need to be in project management.

What’s most important is that in your academic or professional career, you’ve shown you can handle supervising a project from the ground up to its completion. Being able to point to that kind of tangible work goes a long way.

That being said, a master’s degree is an excellent way of demonstrating you understand the core principles of project management and the skills required to excel in the field. Plus, some companies will require a master’s degree in order to become a project manager.

For example, Baker said, if you want to work in the government as a PM, they do require certain certifications if you’re managing a budget in excess of $1 million, so a post-secondary education may be crucial.

There is even a globally recognized Project Management Institute that offers the certification some companies require, Jones added, although to get in, you need to have had hundreds of hours of project management work under your belt. (Again, that’s where a master’s degree could be a massive benefit.)

Ultimately, however, “there is not a prescribed path,” Fanning emphasized. There are all kinds of different routes to explore the field of project management.

How Do You Get Into Project Management?

There is no set answer for how long it’ll take to become a project manager. It could take as little as three months to earn a certificate and then land a job, or it could take several years.

You have to consider what kind of role you want to pursue and the industry you’d like to work in. In some cases, you need years of education, and a master’s degree to be considered. It also takes time to move up the ladder as well.

Top Fields Looking for Project Managers

The good news is, practically every industry seeks skilled and competent project managers. They’re needed at media companies, colleges, hospitals, large businesses, government, nonprofits, technology, restaurants and more.

Name a space, and it probably enlists project managers to oversee new initiatives. If you have the skills and knowledge, you can try your hand at multiple industries, which is certainly a perk of project management.

In terms of the fields hiring project managers right now, Jones pointed to the tech world as a growing industry for PM applicants. Tech is always evolving and implementing new projects, which means a skilled project manager is needed to guide these changing initiatives.

In general, project management jobs are only projected to keep growing, according to a recent report by the Project Management Institute.

How Much Do Project Managers Make?

Like any role, the compensation you can expect to receive as a project manager varies greatly, depending on factors like experience, industry and job location.

Still, rough ballpark estimates reflect competitive PM salaries, and the level of education you receive may also impact your compensation — those with master’s degrees are often able to negotiate for higher salaries and benefits.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates, for example, that project managers make a median pay of $94,500 per year. Again, many PMs can expect to make more depending on their career level and job experience.

The Bottom Line

Fanning, Jones and Baker all agree: Becoming a project manager is an incredible opportunity for a certain kind of person.

“People who are committed to being successful do great in project management. It doesn’t mean that you are the most outgoing person in the room. You don’t have to be the smartest. It’s not being the subject matter expert. Being a successful project manager is being a people manager. It’s being a leader, a coach and a teacher and ensuring everything gets done,” Fanning said.

Baker added that another critical component to success as a project manager is attention to detail: “someone who’s detail-oriented, who likes making lists and crossing them off, who likes to make sure things follow process.”

And Jones also pointed toward the importance of “emotional intelligence.”

“The people who can succeed are sort of extroverted who are really high in emotional intelligence, where they can identify and know how to communicate with people. The two biggest reasons projects fail is lack of communication skills and lack of EQ skills. So, understanding people is key,” he said.

Simply put, if you’re interested in working with other people and becoming a leader, project management is the right field for you. Consider looking into higher education — especially a graduate degree, like the MSPM program at USC — to get started on this path and ensure you have all the knowledge and skills you need to truly thrive in the sector and earn your worth.

For many people, project management is a field that offers challenging, exciting, well-paid projects that keep each day fresh and interesting. And what could be better than that?

Learn more about the online MS in Project Management Program (MSPM) program today.

This article originally appeared on USC Online.

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