Project managers are essential to the smooth running of an organisation. Find out what skills, qualifications and experience you'll need to succeed in the role

Project managers can work in a variety of sectors from business, construction and engineering to IT, marketing and retail. In this role you'll manage company projects from start to finish and ensure that they're delivered on time and to budget, by planning and organising resources and people.

As a new graduate you'll probably start off in a junior or assistant project management position but in order to progress in this competitive field you'll need the right combination of qualifications, skills and experience.

Project management courses

You can get into general project management with any degree subject, although courses in business or project management are particularly useful. However, for more specific project management roles, such as those in engineering or IT, subject knowledge is more important so an undergraduate degree in a related subject will prove useful.

You don't need a postgraduate qualification to get a job as a project manager but if your first degree is unrelated, a Masters could increase your chances of success. Search postgraduate courses in project management.

While a degree or a project management apprenticeship will qualify you for the job, it's the additional knowledge gained through professional qualifications and short courses that will help you to progress in your career.

Gaining professional qualifications before finding work isn't necessary, as the majority of employers provide new recruits with training on the job.

Courses are available in the various project management methodologies such as:

  • PRINCE2 - a structured methodology, commonly used for end-to-end project management. Courses are available at foundation, practitioner and agile level. Foundation courses are suitable for new recruits with a basic knowledge of project management processes. You'll then progress to practitioner level, which is aimed at working professionals.
  • Agile - is suited to fast-moving environments such as IT. Agile methodology uses short development cycles called sprints to focus on continuous improvement in the development of a product. Training is available at foundation and practitioner level. For more information on Agile courses, see IT training.

Industry certification can also be gained through the Association of Project Managers (APM) and the Project Management Institute (PMI).

The APM offers the following certifications:

  • APM Project Fundamentals Qualification (PFQ) - an introductory course in project management terminology. No prior project management knowledge or experience is required.
  • APM Project Management Qualification (PMQ) - a knowledge-based qualification that allows candidates to demonstrate an understanding of all elements of project management. You'll need some previous experience of working in a project management role and will ideally have completed the PFQ.
  • APM Project Professional Qualification (PPQ) - covers the core and specific competences project professionals require. It is aimed at all those working in project management and looking to become a member of the APM.
  • APM Practitioner Qualification (PQ) - for experienced professional with at least three years' experience.

A variety of certificates for experienced project managers are also available from the PMI. In most cases you will need a degree and at least three years of project management experience for entry onto these programmes. Courses include:

  • Project Management Professional (PMP)
  • Program Management Professional (PgMP)
  • Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP)
  • Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)
  • PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)
  • PMI Risk Management Professional (PMI-RMP)
  • PMI Professional in Business Analysis (PMI-PBA)
  • PMI Scheduling Professional (PMI-SP).

Project management skills

As well as qualifications, to be effective in a project management role you'll need to possess certain skills and competencies. The following skills are often cited in project manager job vacancies:

  • Time management - you'll spend a huge portion of your time as a project manager figuring out how other people spend their time, but it's equally important to be skilled in managing your own workload. There are never enough hours in the day but it's your job to prioritise and delegate tasks successfully. You need to be skilled at identifying the most important tasks and saying no to requests that will get in the way of completing priority tasks.
  • Organisation - how can a project manager hope to organise the work of others if they are unorganised themselves? The job demands a high level of responsibility from setting goals, managing meetings and creating estimates and timelines to scheduling and tracking the progress of a project. To juggle all these responsibilities you need to be organised.
  • Communication - the majority of your time will be spent communicating. Therefore, you need to be skilled in clearly articulating visions, ideas, goals and project issues to a variety of people, from team members to stakeholders. Your written communications skills need to be honed for report writing, while your verbal skills need to be up to scratch for meetings and presentations. The ability to listen is also essential.
  • Negotiation - working hand in hand with communication skills, project managers need to be excellent negotiators in order to find common ground on which to accomplish project goals. You'll need to work with teams, often with competing interests to negotiate resources, budgets and schedules. Knowing how to negotiate a win-win outcome for all parties is the sign of a good project manager.
  • Risk management - being able to identify and manage risk shows that you're in control of your project. You need to stay ahead of the game and predict and create solutions to problems before they arise in order to deliver projects successfully.
  • Leadership - being able to lead your team, as well as manage their activities is vital. You need to be able to inspire team members, set the project vision and motive your colleagues.

Work experience can help to build up your project management knowledge and skills. Any experience leading and organising the activities of a team will be valuable. Look for internships as a junior or assistant project manager in sectors of interest, arrange a period of work shadowing with an experienced professional or volunteer in leadership roles. It's also useful to sign up to professional bodies such as the APM and the PMI as a student member to gain access to networking opportunities and events, which could lead to work experience opportunities.

Project management apprenticeships

If you decide that university isn't for you an alternative route into the profession can be taken in the form of a project management apprenticeship.

Programmes tend to be higher apprenticeships (Level 4 - equivalent to the first stages of higher education, for example a foundation degree) and there is now a newly-approved Level 6 project management degree apprenticeship.

On such programmes you can train in roles like assistant project manager, project manager, project co-ordinator, project executive and project support officer. The duration of these apprenticeships range from two to five years, depending on the company you work for.

Organisations that offer project management apprenticeships include:

  • Atos
  • BAE Systems
  • British Airways
  • GSK
  • Highways England
  • National Grid
  • Royal Mail
  • Rolls Royce
  • Transport for London (TFL)
  • Unilever
  • Vodafone.

As an apprentice you'll earn while you learn by working full time for your employer and studying on set days or for set periods of time towards a relevant industry qualification. You'll earn a full-time wage and will be entitled to all the same benefits as any other employee. To apply for an apprenticeship you must be 16 years old or over, eligible to work in England and not in full-time education.

For more in depth information, see apprenticeships.

Common interview questions

To make sure you're well prepared for a job interview, research the company you've applied to and read the job description and person specification. Know your CV inside out and brush up on any industry news.

On the day you could be interviewed by a panel or by a single interviewer. To stay ahead of the game pre-prepare your responses to common interview questions. Also think about what solid examples you'll use to demonstrate your suitability to the role when asked these specific project management interview questions:

  • What project management methodologies are you most familiar with?
  • What are the most important qualities of a project manager and why?
  • How do you approach a newly assigned project?
  • How do you plan a schedule for a project?
  • How do you allocate resources?
  • How do you ensure your team stays on track to meet project deadlines?
  • How do you motivate a team?
  • Two key stakeholders have opposing views. How do you manage this?
  • How do you approach risk management on a new project?
  • What was the most challenging thing about your last project?
  • Have you worked on a project that failed? What happened?
  • What is the most complicated project you have managed? How did you handle it?
  • What was your most successful project?

Before the interview draws to a close it's a good idea to ask the interviewer some questions of your own. Employers will usually give you the opportunity to do so. Prepare a list of options prior to the interview to avoid being caught off guard. For inspiration, see questions to ask at an interview.

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