Project Management Certifications: How to Get Started

If you’re a project manager, do you need to earn project management certifications? As with so many things in tech, that’s a complicated question to answer. Certifications can highlight a project manager’s abilities in ways that allow them to score promotions and future job opportunities; but they’re also not necessary in all circumstances. 

Project management skills extend from the project’s initiation through its planning and execution. It’s not just “hard skills” such as organizing timelines and defining deliverables; good project managers put a lot of emphasis on “soft skills” such as communication and empathy. Skilled project managers must do everything from setting strategy with the team to keeping upper management appraised of project progress; they must also keep a steady eye on short- and long-term goals. 

The median project manager salary is $80,280, according to Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country; that rises with skills and experience, of course. Based on those job postings, here are some key skills that employers want their project managers to possess:

Certifications let employers know that you possess some combination of these skills. Which ones do employers tend to favor? Here are some of the more popular ones:

Project Management Professional (PMP)

This popular certification is offered by the Project Management Institute; requirements include a four-year degree, 35 hours of project management education/training or CAPM certification (see below), and three years of leading projects. 

Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)

New to project management? CAPM (also managed by the Project Management Institute) is a way for project-management newbies to validate skills ahead of earning the PMP. 

Certified Project Director

This certification focuses on the more complicated aspects of project management, including budgeting for large projects. It is conducted by the Global Association for Quality Management

Certified Project Management Practitioner (CPMP)

This certification, overseen by the EC-Council, indexes management skills, including technical abilities. 

Certified ScrumMaster (CSM)

Overseen by The Scrum Alliance, this certification covers project managers’ knowledge of Agile, Scrum, and so on.  

CompTIA Project+

CompTIA Project+ is a comprehensive certification, covering management skills from product lifecycle to team communication. As the name suggests, it is overseen by CompTIA

Professional Scrum Master (PSM)

Overseen by Scrum.org, this certification covers the skills and knowledge of Agile, Scrum, and the role of the Scrum Master. There are three levels of certifications for PSM.

Does project management have an official certification?

According to Dave Hatter, cybersecurity consultant for intrust-IT and the VP of Training and Certification for the PMI Southwest Ohio Chapter (where he leads the PMP and ACP certification training), there are many well-known certifications: “There are many; the best known include the PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, PMI’s Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), CompTIA’s Project+ and AXELOS’ PRINCE2 (Projects IN Controlled Environments).”

Many colleges and universities offer their own certificates in project management, Hatter added. 

Many certified project managers also obtain Agile-related certifications, which can certainly help if a desired project-manager job requires extensive knowledge of Agile methodology. Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, told Dice: “There is no single ‘official’ certification [when it comes to Agile] because there is no single body of knowledge for agility and supporting organization. The Agile Alliance provides support for the Agile Manifesto with a community and conference but that does not extend into the practices, processes, tools, or certification associated with agility.”

West continued: “In response, organizations that support particular bodies of knowledge provide certifications. For example, in the Scrum world, there is one body of knowledge, the Scrum Guide, and then two main training and certification organizations. Scrum.org and Scrum Alliance.”

Scrum.org offers an overview of a number of related certifications, including Professional Scrum with User Experience. The Scrum Alliance also breaks down certifications for specific roles such as Scrum MasterProduct Owner or Coach.

What are the best certifications?

“This is a highly subjective question,” Hatter cautions. “There are now more than 1,000,000 PMP’s worldwide and it is widely considered the gold standard in project management in the U.S. if not across the world. The PMP exam requires 35 hours of PMI-approved training, and three years of auditable experience leading projects if you have a four-year degree. It requires five years of experience if you don’t have a four-year degree.” 

When it comes to the “experience” requirement of the PMP, Hatter said that applicants must submit very detailed information about their previous projects, as well as contact information for people who can verify your experience. “Roughly 10 percent of applications are audited and require additional information and confirmation. The exam is four hours long and is known to be difficult. The first time fail rate is high. It is not easy to earn a PMP certification.”

West, while admitting his bias (“Of course I am biased and believe that Scrum.org certifications are the best in the market”), offers sound advice for anyone looking to get a project management certification:

“I think that any potential certificate taker should review three things:

“The organization that is providing the certification. Do they have a long track record and is the certification directly connected to the body of knowledge?

“Is the test managed in a way that ensures some level of efficacy? For example, how many questions, is the test timed, what is the pass / fail rate.

“What do other people say about the test? Does the community respect the test? Do they think it is hard, are there many holders?”

What certifications do you need for project management?

Here’s where it gets tricky for project managers. Experts seem to agree that there’s no “official” project management certification, although many are well-regarded and recognized as industry-standard. With that in mind, which do you actually need?

For West, it’s all about transparency. “You do not need any certifications to be a great Agile practitioner. But if you believe in transparency and getting great feedback on your skills,certifications provide a good foundation to test your knowledge, and prove your work.” 

Certifications imply that the candidate invested quite a bit of time and effort into the study of project management (or other discipline). It also shows that the candidate is willing to absorb and act upon feedback, as that’s a vital part of the certification-earning process. As a result, certifications will likely pop up in the course of a project-manager interview.

“I don’t believe that you need any certification,” Hatter added. “That said, many jobs require a certification. In the U.S., many require the PMP certification as table stakes. I do believe that anyone who pursues the PMP certification will learn useful, practical information that will make them a more valuable project manager.”

How do you get a project manager certification?

Scrum.org offers a free open practice assessment (not a certification one). “It is always good to have taken a class, but it is not required,” West noted. “You just have to study and prepare.”

Hatter underscores that certification testing is mandatory, but highlights the requirements are different for each test: “In all cases, you must take a test. In some cases, you must take an authorized course and have demonstrable, auditable project management experience. Each certification has unique requirements that the candidate must understand and meet.”

Scrum’s Agile certification costs “from $1000 to $2000 with variances based on geography and timing. If you buy the certification test separately that ranges from $150 to $500 depending on the level of the assessment,” West noted. 

The cost for a PMP certification is much higher. Though the PMI Institute obfuscates its total spend for a certification, the full course—with 35 hours of training and the final exam—can cost up to (roughly) $4,000. Again, this seems to vary based on a variety of factors (geography, time of year, how much training you require), but expect to shell out a few grand if you need both classroom time and the test. The PMP test alone will run you about $500.


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