How to get experience in project management
Last updated on: August 8, 2022
If there was a list of the ‘most eligible’ professions out there, project management would definitely be on it.
According to most recent estimates, there’s such a high demand for project managers that over 25M professionals will need to enter the workforce by 2030 just to keep up with it.
To top it off, project managers generally have a well-above-average salary across the globe. In the US, the median project management salary amounts to $115,000 per year.
A high salary and high demand that has the potential to make the income even higher — you might be thinking “this sounds like the perfect job for me”.
There’s just one problem — you have no experience.
But don’t worry.
Whether you’re a fresh graduate or a seasoned employee looking to switch careers, this article will lay out an action plan on how to eventually land a job in project management — even if you don’t have any experience right now.
Can you be a project manager without experience?
To clear this up right off the bat — no, it’s not possible to get a job in project management without experience.
However, there’s a high chance that you already have some experience in this field without even knowing it. And even if you don’t, getting it is not as difficult as you think.
Let us explain.
A project manager is like a head nurse or a sheriff — you can’t become one if you haven’t first worked in the industry for a time and proven that you’re capable of taking on the job.
The good news is that you don’t need the title of “project manager” to earn experience in project management. Managing projects is an inherent part of most professions — but, also, our daily lives.
If you’ve ever organized a surprise birthday party, renovated your home, or moved houses, you have experience in project management, however limited it may be.
Take a look at your career up until now. Have there been instances where you had to lead similar activities in a work environment?
Write them down in as much detail as you can remember. These will serve as your starting point to figure out:
- What you can and can’t do at this moment,
- Where your strengths lie, and
- Where you can go from here.
What counts as project management experience?
To answer what counts as project management experience we must first explain:
- What a project is, and
- What the project manager does.
A project is an endeavor limited by project scope, time, and budget — it produces some sort of a deliverable at the end. The typical project lifecycle consists of the following five stages:
- Executing (leading and directing),
- Monitoring and controlling, and
- Closing the project.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
To learn more about the phases of a project’s life cycle, hop on over to our guide that goes over each of the phases in detail:
A project manager (PM) is the person who is responsible for leading projects. In other words, a PM’s main duty is making sure projects are completed within scope, time, and budget.
To have had experience in project management means that you’ve been in a situation where you had to do the following:
- Organize an event,
- Create some sort of a product or service, or
- Be involved in one or more phases of the project lifecycle.
How long does it take to become a project manager?
The position of a project manager is reached through career evolution.
Even if you have limited project management experience from some of your previous jobs, but have never actually worked in the field, it’s highly unlikely you’ll land the role on your first try.
Instead, you’ll first have to gain practical experience in other related roles through work or volunteering. According to HR Manager at Solar Panel Networks USA, Michelle Hague, this could take up to 12 months:
“Depending on the size and complexity of the projects you volunteer for, it could take anywhere from six months to a year to gain enough experience to apply for a project manager role.”
Tips on how to get project management experience
So, let’s quickly recap:
- A project manager is a leadership role.
- You can’t become a project manager without experience.
- You don’t have to hold the title of “project manager” to gain relevant experience.
- Experiences can be drawn from life, volunteering, or your previous career.
- It takes between 6 to 12 months to gain sufficient experience to apply for a PM role.
Now that that’s clear, we can take a look at some of the ways you can get into project management without ever having worked in the field before.
Tip #1: Volunteer outside of work
Volunteering is a surefire way to gain valuable management experience and hone your communication and organizational skills. Keep in mind, however, that roles matter — you want to be the one giving directions instead of the one following orders.
The great thing about volunteering is that the demand is high and you don’t need prior experience to do it. This means that you can start preparing for your future PM role even as an undergraduate.
Some of the ways you can get your foot in the door and get valuable experience includes:
- Helping set up a local fair,
- Organizing a venue for a non-profit event, or
- Running an after-school program.
Tip #2: Step up at work
If you already have a job and are seriously considering a career in project management, try stepping up and asking for a chance to help with projects within your organization.
Most of the time, employers will be happy to see you show initiative and gain another pair of hands at no additional cost.
You can even highlight that the reason for your volunteering is your desire to move to a PM role.
This will prove especially fruitful if your organization already has a project management office (PMO).
Here’s what Michelle has to say about this:
“The best way to gain experience in project management as a person with no experience is to volunteer for projects within your organization. This will allow you to learn about the project management process and how it is applied in a real-world setting. It will also allow you to build a network of contacts who can provide advice and support.“
If you prove yourself as a valuable asset, it might be possible to avoid looking for a new job and simply advance to a PM position within your current organization.
Tip #3: Create your own project
If finding an opportunity within your organization doesn’t work out, and settling into a PM-like role while volunteering proves difficult, you can always create your own project.
Think about what you can do to help out your community or improve profitability or productivity in your company, and pitch it to your boss. These ideas don’t have to be big or expensive projects. In fact, it’s better if they aren’t — they just need to work.
To improve the chances of your proposal being accepted, take your time to plan and test your idea on a smaller scale and present your findings in a way that emphasizes its benefits.
In his paper for PMI, Francis McNamara points out that “In most organizations, there are significantly more good project ideas than there are time, money, and people to implement them all.” Knowing how to sell your proposal is an important part of being a successful project manager — so, even if your idea falls through, think of it as another learning experience.
Tip #4: Get a side hustle
Another way you can acquire precious experience is by getting a job on the side. This can be a freelance or a regular part-time job.
If you already have a full-time career, freelancing in your free time might be a better option. It will give you the opportunity to exercise your project management skills on your own terms and at your own pace.
And what if you’re too overwhelmed by your regular job at the moment?
Just take a break from side hustling and continue taking on new jobs when you’re ready.
This is a useful and flexible way you can develop your skills that also earns you money on the side.
Tip #5: Get an internship
Internships are a fantastic way to step into a new career. And, despite popular opinion, they are not only meant for fresh graduates.
Many companies offer adult internships — also sometimes called Enternships or Returnships — for professionals who need a fresh start.
Internships are great because they offer a way to fully dedicate yourself to learning a new job while receiving guidance from professionals around you.
This might mean you’ll have a lower salary in the beginning — but it will save you the trouble of working two jobs at once.
Tip #6: Apply for entry-level jobs in a field related to project management
Michelle Hague highlighted that you can also gain PM experience through other related jobs:
“Another way to gain experience in project management is to get a job in a related field — such as project administration or coordination. This will give you some exposure to the world of project management and help you develop the necessary skills.”
Applying for entry-level jobs in spheres related to project management requires some experience — but the standards are much less rigorous than when it comes to PM positions.
This makes these jobs a great gateway to the project management world.
Here are some entry-level positions you should consider:
- Administrative assistant,
- Business analyst,
- Event planner,
- Project coordinator,
- Operations assistant,
- Project coordinator,
- Program assistant, or
- Associate project manager.
Depending on your degree, experience, and the opportunities you have at your disposal, you could land one of these jobs and use it as a stepping stone for advancement later in your career.
Tip #7: Join a project management organization
While joining a project management organization won’t directly contribute to your experience, it will open up new opportunities for advancement.
The most famous PM organizations are:
- Project Management Institute (PMI) with its main headquarters in the US,
- International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the Netherlands,
- Association for Project Management (APM), based in the UK, and
- Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM).
Deciding which one to join will depend on where you live and work, and which certifications you wish to pursue. But, as Michelle highlights, joining at least one will work to your advantage.
“Joining a professional organization such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) will give you access to resources and networking opportunities, as well as the chance to take project management courses that will provide you with a solid foundation in project management principles.”
Being a member of one of these organizations, you’ll have access to a community of people just like you — ready to collaborate, network, and share experiences.
Additionally, you’ll be able to contact and meet successful project managers, program managers, directors, consultants, and more, who can serve as mentors in your journey.
Finally, members of these organizations will often have certain advantages and discounts when it comes to taking project management courses and acquiring certifications.
For example, members of the PMI often have a $50 to $150 discount on all courses and certifications. They also have the chance to attend conferences and meet people they otherwise would not be able to.
Tip #8: Get a PMP certification as soon as possible
Speaking of certifications, you should consider getting certified early in your career.
Certifications won’t give you experience or immediately propel you to a project manager position — at least the entry-level ones won’t. However, most certification programs come with courses.
Beginner certifications will prove that you have gone through some official training and that your knowledge has satisfied the established criteria for that particular level.
They might also give you a slight advantage if you happen to be competing for a job against someone with qualifications equal to your own.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
To find out more about project management certifications, which ones are the best for beginners, intermediate, and advanced PMs, how much they cost, where to get them, and more, check out our guide in the link below:
Beginner certifications are also great because they’re a gateway to high-level certifications, such as the world-renowned PMP certification.
The PMP, for example, comes with a host of advantages — most notably, the much higher salary (up to 51% higher) compared to project managers without the PMP certificate.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
Interested in how much you’ll be able to earn as a project manager, and how your salary will scale with experience? Take a peek at our project management salary guide for 2022:
One of the requirements for the PMP certification is having at least 35h of project management education. This is something you’ll have to scramble to get before you take the PMP exam — unless you get a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) certification early on, for example.
Aside from the very basic ones, most certifications — including the PMP — require a certain amount of experience to take the exam. Remember that your job title doesn’t matter when it comes to acquiring this experience — what matters is the work you did to get it.
This is why it’s essential to keep track of all projects you’re a part of and document them properly. Among other things, this means recording:
- When the projects took place and how long they lasted,
- Who they were for,
- What your exact responsibilities were, and
- How you contributed to the project.
Make sure to also gather testimonials and recommendations from people who have worked with you at the time to back up your claims. And, be prepared to talk in detail about your work.
These records will help you both get accepted to take the test for the certification of your choosing, but also prove an invaluable resource for putting together your resume later on.
What qualifications do you need to be a project manager?
Now that you have a list of all the things you need to do to acquire project management experience, how do you know when you’re finally done preparing, and when you’re ready to take on a PM role?
In most cases, experience and tangible results are the most important.
Figuratively speaking, project managers come in all shapes and sizes. According to PMI’s recent survey, plenty of project managers only have a high school diploma, and they are still working and earning competitive salaries.
Moreover, the greatest demand and the highest salaries remain in niche sectors, according to AIPM. And the best way to have experience in niche sectors is to have worked in those sectors before.
For example, to become an IT project manager, it’s ideal that you have a background or a degree in IT. This is the case for most other niche sectors.
But, when it comes to the Government sector, for example, things are a little different. According to the same survey by AIPM, the Government, Education, and Health sectors usually look for people with more generalized skills. In these cases, a degree in project management or business may prove more useful than in more specialized niches.
In the end, you’ll need slightly different qualifications depending on where you want to work.
But, most of the time, experience without a degree trumps a degree without experience.
What skills do you need to build experience as a project manager?
So, we know that you need experience to become a project manager.
But, experience in what exactly?
What are the specific skills you’ll be putting on your resume once you start applying for jobs?
Simple exposure gives you limited benefits. For example, a person who has spent a year on a ship wouldn’t necessarily know how to steer it in a time of crisis — unless that’s something they put an effort into learning.
In the same way, aspiring project managers should be deliberate with the skills they wish to develop when getting their experience. For example, you can learn to write immaculate documentation, and that’s a great skill to have. But immaculate documentation doesn’t successfully close projects — good leadership, communication, and planning do.
Here, we’ll talk about the vital skills you should learn if you want to be a project manager, and those are:
- PM software skills,
- Leadership skills,
- Communication skills,
- Organizational skills,
- Planning skills, and
- Budgeting and time management skills.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
What are hard skills in project management? What are soft skills? What can you do to improve them? Find out this, and more in our comprehensive guide on project management skills:
Project management software skills
Knowing how to maneuver project management software might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of necessary PM skills — and it wasn’t, until recently.
But, nowadays, projects can hardly be run without computers, digital calendars, task lists, or Kanban boards.
Project management tools — such as Plaky — have become an essential part of the project workflow. They are secure workspaces where you and your team can keep up to date with the project in general and each other’s tasks, from anywhere in the world.
Besides the classic PM software, you’ll also need to know how to operate Microsoft Excel and the Google suite at the very least.
Take note of what the people around you are using — if you don’t like it, try out different tools until you find one that works. You’ll have a better chance of mastering your projects if you can get the software to work for you.
Project managers are leaders first and foremost.
A project manager’s job is to make sure projects are completed on time and within budget.
A large part of this consists of organization and planning, but the project managers aren’t the ones doing the grunt work — the team is. Therefore, the success of a project largely depends on how well the PM handles team management, or rather, how good of a leader they are.
People who are good leaders are seen as reliable and trustworthy. Here’s how you can improve your leadership skills:
Improve your listening skills
Good leaders are able to actively listen and understand what others are telling them, and they are not afraid to take advice.
If your team members feel like they are not being taken seriously, they will stop talking because — what’s the point?
In the words of Andy Stanley, “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say”.
Learn how to ask questions
Ego is a powerful thing. Sometimes, it leads us to talk in order to impress and raise others’ opinions of us. But instead of sounding impressive, this can come across as boastful.
Good leaders aren’t afraid to ask questions because they know their value.
Asking questions will have you learn more about your team, what they like, what they are good at, their desires and aspirations. But, most importantly, good questions foster innovative thinking, according to HBR.
Learn to empathize
According to PMI’s Pulse of the Professional 2021, empathy is one of the most important aspects of leadership, and the cornerstone of building trusting relationships.
It allows employees to feel like they have a present leader whom they can rely on.
Empathy is about compassion.
But, even more importantly, it’s about making sure that people are in a good state of physical and mental well-being and in a good position to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.
Learn to be open in your communication
As the famous saying goes, “There is no ‘I’ in teamwork”.
When you’re working with a team of people, and especially when you’re the one leading them, being open and transparent in all your business dealings and communication is paramount.
Open communication builds trust and leads employees to understand the reasons and motivations behind every action, which, in turn, leads them to see themselves as an important part of a whole.
Learn to be decisive
A 2014 Ketchum survey of 6,500 workers claims to have found the leadership formula:
Effective leadership = Open communication + Decisive Action + Personal Presence
Decisiveness serves to strengthen our credibility in the eyes of others. It’s a trait that shows confidence and creates an image of a reliable leader.
Additionally, research shows that decisiveness helps boost the chances of project success.
Apparently, decisive leaders who make decisions within the span of an hour boost project success rates to 58% — compared to only 18% when the decision-making process lasts up to 5 hours.
Being called a leader on paper can boost anyone’s opinion of themselves.
It’s important to tame this feeling.
Of course, too much humility can be highly detrimental.
However, in moderate doses it will:
- Improve your judgment — as it will allow you to put your pride aside and take advice from others, and
- Present you as a down-to-earth person who belongs with the rest of the team.
Now, team management is important — but good listening and communication skills are the cornerstones of successful project management.
As someone responsible for hiring project managers, Michelle Hague had this to say about communication:
“When hiring project managers, I look for candidates who can build good relationships with their team members and have strong communication skills. These are essential qualities for any project manager.”
This has to do with establishing trust and solidifying the team’s opinion of you as the reliable leader.
Communication and leadership skills are the most difficult to master. So, take notes when you get to observe those more experienced than yourself.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
There’s a lot more to say about communication than we can possibly fit in here. So, if you’d like to learn all about why effective communication is integral to any business environment, including project management, check out our blog post below:
When doing internships, or when you’re allowed to temporarily join your organization’s PMO, don’t just focus on mastering the technical skills. People skills are just as important — if not more.
Some of you may find yourselves discouraged seeing good organization on this list. After all, not too many people can claim that they have expert organizational skills.
But, don’t worry — good organization is not a talent, it’s another skill — and skills can be learned.
If you don’t know where to start, here are a few tips on how to improve your organizational skills.
Learn to be specific with your goals and tasks
Be as specific as possible about what you want to accomplish and explain in detail what you need to do to accomplish it.
Then, break down the goals into smaller tasks.
Having everything laid out in front of you will help you understand what you’re working towards — but it will also create a step-by-step guide on how to get there.
Learn to set priorities
Prioritizing your to-do list is a key aspect of good organization.
It will ensure that the most important tasks are completed first, and that you have a solid foundation to lean on when working on your future tasks.
Learn to delegate tasks
Understand that you cannot, and should not do everything by yourself.
A project manager has a team and assistants who each have their own responsibilities — let them do their jobs according to their qualifications and abilities, and the team will function as a well-oiled machine.
Learn to define deadlines
People tend to procrastinate if you don’t impose deadlines on them — that is the uncomfortable truth.
So, to avoid procrastination and make sure the project is on track with the schedule, learn how to set clear deadlines.
Learn to keep track of your progress
This goes without saying, but, to notice when something is going wrong, when the project is off schedule, and when you need to adjust your priorities, you have to keep track of your progress.
Something as simple as a status overview is enough — but it needs to exist if you want to be on top of your tasks at all times.
Learn to use a project management tool
Luckily, technology has provided us with an easy way to do all of the things mentioned above much easier than before.
Modern project management tools enable you to stay very well-organized with features such as
- Status assignments,
- Task delegation,
- Task management,
- Deadline creation,
- Task prioritizations,
- Schedule management — and much more, at your fingertips.
PM tools also allow you and your team to have a visual overview of what the entire team is working on. You can keep track of who is doing what, who is ahead of schedule, and who is lagging behind.
With all these tools and information at your disposal, you’ll be able to:
- Reduce stress,
- Improve productivity,
- Create more accurate deadlines and schedules, and
- Improve your planning and time management capabilities.
Poor planning is one of the major challenges PMs have to overcome, according to Wellingtone.
The most dangerous consequence of poor planning is scope creep and, ultimately, a complete project breakdown.
The issue is that most people without planning experience believe that they are good at planning — or at least, that they could do it well given enough time.
This is a common misconception that can turn into a big problem if left unaddressed.
Aspiring project managers should practice their planning skills every chance they get.
With enough experience in failing, you’ll eventually learn how to plan and which pitfalls to avoid.
Conclusion: You don’t need to be a project manager to get PM experience
The position of project manager is an advanced leadership position within an organization. This means that you can only reach it by working your way up to it. And, to do this, you need relevant experience.
Luckily, project management experience can be gained both in everyday life, and through other professions.
In other words, your current job title is irrelevant. When applying for a PM position, or another entry-level role, your experience and achievements in PM-related tasks will carry the most weight.
This means that, no matter if you’re a student or graduate with no experience, or someone with years of experience in an unrelated field, you still have a very good chance of becoming a project manager — as long as you make an effort to follow the tips we’ve laid out in this article.
✉️ So, how did you become a project manager? Have you tried out any of the methods we talked about? How did they work out for you? Are there any others you’d like to add to the list? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org, and your suggestions might find their way into the next iteration of this article.