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Building Your Project Management Career Path

Industry Advice Management

Highly qualified project managers are needed in all industries more than ever before.

The global talent gap between employers’ needs for project management professionals and the availability of experts to fill those roles is growing rapidly. Several factors driving this gap include an increase in the number of jobs requiring project management skills, higher attrition rates, and a significant uptick in demand for project talent in developing economies.

According to the Project Management Institute’s Job Growth and Talent Gap report, employers will need to fill 2.2 million new project management-oriented roles annually through the year 2027. In particular, the U.S. healthcare sector has experienced the most substantial increase in project-oriented jobs, followed by industries such as manufacturing and construction, information services and publishing, and finance and insurance.

If you are considering starting a career in project management, there has never been a better time to do so. Here, we’ll explore the typical career path that project management professionals follow.

Download Our Free Guide to Advancing Your Project Management Career

Learn what you need to know, from in-demand skills to the industry’s growing job opportunities.


Project Management Job Outlook and Salary

The median salary for project managers in the United States is $116,000 across all industries, with most earning between $93,000 and $140,000 annually. There are many factors, though, that affect a project manager’s salary, including a project management certification or graduate degree, years of experience, specialization, project team size, industry, and location.

Additionally, a project manager’s salary is expected to increase as they advance along their career path. While there is no typical progression of job titles (most advance from Project Manager I to Project Manager II, for instance), there are opportunities for skilled workers to advance from project to program to portfolio management throughout their careers if desired.

The most common stages of a project management career are as follows.

Project Management Career Path

While some of the most well-known positions include project manager, program manager, and portfolio manager, there are many possible job titles that project management professionals can pursue.

1. Project Manager

A project manager is responsible for applying the right tools, techniques, and processes to complete the project successfully. Project managers are responsible for balancing the scope of the work and the resources available, maintaining budget and time constraints, and meeting the quality standards required by key stakeholders.

Within this role, there are various job titles that a professional might hold, including project coordinator; project manager I, II, or II; and senior project manager. In general, these roles involve planning and executing projects by managing factors like budget, timeline, and resource allocation.

Many experienced project management professionals choose to advance their career by pursuing a program management role.

2. Program Manager

After working at the project level for an organization, a PM professional can go on to oversee programs. A program is defined as a group of projects managed in a coordinated way that ensures value is achieved.

Since program management involves overseeing several projects concurrently, there is inherently more responsibility involved in this role. However, program management is more strategic than managing multiple projects. The program manager also analyzes the business benefits of a program, oversees dependencies between projects, and creates program-level plans to produce a successful result.

The average salary for program managers also varies depending on the industry and experience level. The PMI has reported that the median salary for general program managers is roughly $125,000, and can reach as high as $148,400 per year.

3. Portfolio Manager

A project portfolio is a collection of projects and programs that are managed as a group to achieve strategic business objectives.

A portfolio manager, then, is responsible for the centralized management of one or more portfolios to meet an organization’s goals. This role carries a large amount of responsibility and therefore requires extensive experience and expertise.

At this senior level, professionals can expect generous compensation. Data from the PMI shows that the average annual salary for a project portfolio manager is $138,000.

4. Senior- and Executive-Level Roles

After gaining experience in the field, there are several senior- and executive-level positions that project management professionals may be able to pursue, such as project management office (PMO) director or chief operating officer (COO).

A PMO director oversees an organization’s project management office and takes a leadership role in setting and maintaining standards for projects throughout the company. The median salary for PMO directors is $144,000 per year, according to the PMI.

For an established project manager with 10 or more years of experience, transitioning into the role of COO can be an attainable goal. The skills needed for this position are often similar to those developed throughout a project management career. According to PayScale, the average salary of COOs is $143,477 per year. 

5. Industry-Specific Project Management Roles

Project management professionals have career opportunities in virtually all industries, and they may come across industry-specific job titles as their careers progress. Some of the most promising industries for project managers include:

  • Healthcare
  • Construction and Engineering
  • Financial Services
  • Software and Information Technology

To advance within a certain industry, project managers may need to develop specialized skills related to that field. For example, those working in the information technology sector will need a strong understanding of the software development process in order to effectively manage a software project

It is important to note that there is no formal definition of a career path for project managers or practitioners. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to enter a project management role from an entirely different professional background.

Consider Dani Beckman, for example, a 2015 graduate of Northeastern’s Master of Science in Project Management program, who shares her story below.

How a Master’s in Project Management Helped One Alumna Rethink Her Career Path

It wasn’t until Dani Beckman discovered Northeastern University­­­–Charlotte that she realized project management was the career path she was meant to pursue. She initially studied pre-law before switching to business, but once she landed an office job, she recognized there were many additional opportunities to pursue. Primarily, she noticed, she enjoyed wearing different hats and being the one to keep people organized and projects on track. Dani Beckman

“I had been constantly thinking, ‘What am I going to get my master’s degree in?’” Beckman says. “Then this light bulb went off in my head.”

When she saw that Northeastern’s Charlotte campus offered a master’s in project management, it clicked; that was an area she dabbled in daily without even realizing it. Once she began taking classes, her expectations were validated. She was able to apply the lessons she learned on cost and budgeting to her day job and, although new to her at first, these are now skills she helps pass on to others.

After graduating, Beckman advanced from a junior project manager at financial services firm Wells Fargo to a senior-level portfolio manager at transportation company Amtrak. There, she leveraged her network of classmates and professors from Northeastern to meet other project managers and advance in her field. Jennifer Young Baker, a former adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University­­–Charlotte and director of Amtrak’s Project Management Center of Excellence, became Beckman’s boss.

At Amtrak, Beckman helped standardize the company’s project management practices. She’s created templates and written standards around topics like communication and quality management so that colleagues within Amtrak who might not have a PMP or other kind of credential can still manage their projects successfully.

For Beckman, enabling others to see themselves as project managers is critical. “Just because your title is not ‘project manager’ doesn’t mean you’re not doing the work,” she says. “Anything you do is a project. If it starts one day and ends another and it’s different, it’s a project. If you have to take more than one step to finish it, it’s a project.”

After choosing project management as a career, Beckman realized how much the industry has also impacted her personal life.

“It has helped me see the world and my life in a whole different way,” Beckman says. “Now I break things out into smaller sections. Nothing looks big and ominous. You always get there in the end.”

Taking the Next Step in your Project Management Career

There is an increasing number of opportunities for project management professionals in our project-oriented global economy. So, if you’re interested in taking the next step toward a career in project management, now is an opportune time to break into the field. However, it’s important for aspiring professionals to obtain the skills required to meet the demand and stand out from among the competition.

Obtaining a certification, such as the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, is one way to advance your career. However, becoming a certified PMP will not necessarily provide you with the range of skills and expertise required to manage the complex projects you may encounter on the job.

For some, an advanced degree—such as Northeastern’s MS in Project Management—is a better career fit. Graduate programs in project management focus on building both the practical skills and theoretical concepts needed to lead complex projects and improve organizational outcomes.

By earning a master’s in project management, you will gain the specialized knowledge needed to lead and manage complicated projects effectively while avoiding common pitfalls. You’ll also have the chance to acquire the broad, integrative knowledge required to manage project scope, risk, quality, and performance while effectively communicating with project stakeholders.

Other benefits of earning an MS in PM include gaining an understanding of key project management trends, preparing for a more senior role, preparing for a role in a specific industry, and learning skills with an impact beyond project management.

The skills you will learn from earning a master’s in project management can help you in whatever new role you take on. As Beckman notes, many work activities you already perform are part of a project. As such, the essential skills for successful project managers, such as effective communication, negotiation, time management, leadership, and technical expertise, are well suited for virtually any job in today’s ever-changing world.

To learn more about breaking into or advancing your career in project management, download our free guide below. 

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