Project managers (PMs) plan, track, supervise, and close out projects. They work on marketing projects, construction projects, digital projects, retail projects, and projects in nearly every industry, everywhere in the world. They're accountable to just about everyone for just about everything—the term "hot seat" may have been coined for project managers.
Project management is a big job that includes:
When a project is delivered late, goes over budget, or goes completely off the rails, chances are the project manager will be held accountable. The unfortunate reality is that every new project represents a new opportunity for the you-know-what to hit the fan. PMs have to deal with unrealistic timelines, inter-team conflicts, scarce resources, irrational budgets, and all kinds of roadblocks.
As project management consultant Trevor Rabey put it in one Quora thread, "A great deal of what passes for project management isn't management at all, but more a matter of running into one unforeseen crisis after another and sorting it out as you go along, flying by the seat of your pants, on a wing and a prayer."
Despite it all, many professionals love this job and insist that becoming a successful project manager isn't as impossible as it sounds. If you're a high-energy, hyper-organized extrovert who thrives under pressure and loves making order out of chaos, this may be your ideal profession. Rabey is right when he says it's the project manager's job to deal with every new crisis, but some people are energized—not exhausted—by that challenge. So, let's take a look at what the life of a project manager is really like.
What does a project manager do? This article answers that question by discussing:
The many roles and responsibilities associated with project management serve a single purpose: to reduce uncertainty. PMs in all industries map out—in as much detail as possible—and then oversee projects to make sure that everything proceeds according to plan.
An effective project manager can foresee risks and roadblocks and prepare for them when creating budgets, schedules, and timelines. They then organize and control work on the project so that people and teams work toward specific goals at specific times.
A good project manager:
A project manager's specific responsibilities vary depending on what type of project they're working on and where they work (more on this below). PMs in different industries handle a different set of process flows. Beyond the specifics, however, a PM in marketing does work that's similar in scope to work done by a software project manager or a healthcare project manager.
Project managers work everywhere, though some industries hire more PMs than others. According to Project Management Institute surveys, these industries hire the most project managers:
There are also jobs for project managers in architecture, retail, software development, construction, and research. Project managers are, to some degree, able to move from industry to industry. Sometimes they have to brush up on field-specific knowledge to land a project planning, program manager, or project manager role in another field, but they typically don't have to go back to school to earn a new degree.
Elizabeth Harrin, for instance, began her career as a technical project manager in the insurance industry. "Insurance is an industry with a specific language… and there was a point where I thought that I would need to stay in the industry," she said. "I thought I had some special knowledge–in reality, I did, but that's not to say that moving industry is impossible. You can learn the special knowledge of other industries, and my shift to healthcare was relatively easy."
There are still relatively few bachelor's degree and master's degree programs for aspiring project managers. Until fairly recently, a PM's highest level of education didn't seem to matter much as long as they had the right management certifications.
Now that's changing. A report published by Burning Glass Labor Insight found that 34 percent of employers posting project management jobs prefer or even require applicants to have a master's degree.
There are only a few pure Bachelor of Science in Project Management programs like the ones at Northeastern University and Embry - Riddle Aeronautical University - Daytona Beach. Most project managers who have bachelor's degrees related to this discipline have degrees like the:
Other project managers have undergraduate degrees in industry-specific disciplines—like a bachelor's degree in business or a bachelor's degree in marketing—and transition to project management after getting hands-on experience overseeing one or more projects.
Only 28 percent of project managers have master's degrees, suggesting that project managers don't yet need advanced degrees to launch careers in this field. That said, getting a project management master's degree may make it easier to land jobs and negotiate higher salaries.
There are strong project management master's degree programs at:
It's possible to launch a career in project management with a high school diploma or an associate's degree, provided you have the right skills and experience. Some skills necessary to a project manager's work are specific to project management but easy to acquire. The Project Management Institute offers a variety of training and professional development courses, materials, and seminars, and many other organizations offer in-person and online project management courses that teach project management tools and project management methodologies.
Some of the skills project managers use are useful across professions. They include:
They definitely do. There are quite a few project management certifications to choose from, most of which are granted by the Project Management Institute. All of them are designed to demonstrate a person's project management experience. Not all employers require their PMs to be certified, but getting certified is generally a good idea because certified project managers can earn a lot more money
Certifications for project management professionals include:
Project managers in some fields may need technical subject expertise, but generally, PMs only need to have enough technical knowledge to get by. Professionals who manage projects are generally not expected to have the same skill set or tech mastery as the people and teams they're overseeing. A healthcare project manager, for instance, doesn't need to have a deep understanding of how healthcare systems work or medicine. They only need to be knowledgeable enough to understand the project objectives, whether that project involves opening a new practice or migrating from one medical records-keeping system to another.
Well-developed time management skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, and experience using the latest project management software can be more useful than technical knowledge when leading a project—especially large-scale projects. After all, the project manager's job isn't to do the work, but rather to organize and motivate others to do that work.
To answer the question 'what does a project manager do?', it makes sense to look at the role in different industries. In manufacturing, project managers create budgets and timelines and allocate resources for projects in factories and manufacturing plants. That can involve working closely with upper management, shop floor workers, and outside suppliers of component parts and raw materials. The decisions the project manager makes can influence production rates, the cost of manufacturing, safety, and the speed at which products get to market.
A manufacturing project manager might oversee the installation of new manufacturing equipment, the expansion of a facility, a move to a new facility, or updates to manufacturing processes. Large manufacturing firms might employ several full-time PMs while the project manager at a small manufacturing facility might do more than manage projects.
Marketing project managers are experts in planning and executing projects related to advertising and branding. These PMs may be involved in internal campaigns for the company they work for and/or external campaigns for clients who hire that company. In the latter scenario, the project manager's job is to make sure that deliverables get to clients on time. Project managers in marketing typically spend their days meeting with clients, managing calendars and budgets specific to individual accounts, assigning tasks and responsibilities, and tracking the progress of all campaigns.
At a software development company, the PM is responsible for making sure that the development process is unfolding as it's supposed to. They work closely with the development manager, functional analyst, and stakeholders to make sure client expectations are being met (if the firm creates custom applications) or that internal development projects (like the creation of large-scale desktop software suites) are unfolding as planned, from start to finish.
The average project manager salary differs from industry to industry. Experienced project managers tend to make a lot more than entry-level PMs.
Let's look at experience first. Early-career professionals earn about $48,000 a year, while more experienced PMs earn about $80,000. Certified project managers across industries, according to a 2019 survey of almost 9,000 project managers, can earn about $123,000.
Now let's break it down by industry.
Right now, you might be thinking that project managers across industries do vital work and make good money. That's true, but you should also be aware that they don't always get credit for their contributions to successful projects. This can be a thankless job, and when projects aren't successful, it's often the project manager who gets the blame. But regardless of how stressful this career can be, it's a great role for people who are curious and open to new experiences. One thing all project managers do is to learn.
"You evolve so much in your lifetime and career as a project manager, Darwin would be proud of you!" wrote one PM in a now-defunct blog post for AdaptivPlan. "When a project ends, you learn something different from it. You pick up new skills, new ways of managing things, a new perspective on challenges. Every mistake or failure made or milestone reached is an opportunity to learn and do a better job going forward."
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