For most people, there comes a point in their career when they begin thinking about how to take the next step forward. In the project management discipline, many look to the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Project Management Professional (PMP) certification as a means to this end. While the PMP certification is certainly a well-respected credential, it’s not for everyone.
Weighing all the costs and benefits can also be difficult—Google “should you get a PMP certification?” and you’ll get tens of thousands of results. Some say that obtaining the certification is an excellent career move because it validates your project management skill set. Others advise project managers to stay on the job and get a few more years of real-world training under their belt, since many employers like to see on-the-job experience.
So, should you get a PMP Certification? I posed this question to several project management and hiring experts to get a better sense of who should get a PMP, what it takes to get one and the potential payoff. Here’s what they had to say.
To Get a PMP Certification, You Need Real-World Experience
The first thing to understand about the PMP certification is that it’s best-suited for individuals who already know they want to pursue a career of planning and executing projects across functional teams from beginning to end.
In other words, if you want to pursue a career that isn’t focused on project-based work (e.g. a sales career), then the PMP isn’t for you. As Kevin Archbold, Consulting Manager at Key Consulting, puts it, “It’s not really appropriate for individuals whose work is individually based and doesn’t depend on others for completion.”
In addition to wanting to pursue a project management career, you need to have professional experience managing projects. The PMI recognizes two education-based paths to PMP certification, the requirements for which I detail in the table below.
Project Management Experience
Documented Time Leading & Directing Projects
Project Management Education
(Bachelor’s or global equivalent)
3 years or more
(High school diploma, associate’s degree or global equivalent)
5 years or more
All of this experience must be accrued within no more than eight years prior to submitting your application. PMI also specifies that your professional experience must be non-overlapping, meaning that if you managed two projects at once, you can only count one of those projects toward your project management experience. Furthermore, this experience must align with the tasks, knowledge and skills outlined in their Project Management Professional Examination Content Outline.
If you don’t meet the project management education requirements, don’t worry—there’s another way. Archbold, who teaches a PMP exam prep course, says that the project management education requirements can usually be met within three to four months. Courses generally range from $1,500 to $4,000.
Once you meet all of these requirements, you then must take a rigorous 200-question exam, which costs $500. If you pass the test, you become a PMP certified project manager. It sounds like a lot of work—and it is. But, according to the experts I spoke with, the payoffs can be considerable.
A PMP Certification Makes Your Resume More Attractive
If you’re looking for a job as a project manager—or are still early on in your project management career—a PMP certification is a great credential to add to your resume. If you’re a project manager with a proven track record for managing projects, your professional experience likely speaks for itself, but a PMP certification can still help. Why? Recruiters often use certification to narrow their candidate pool.
To filter applicants, says Archbold, “many recruiters divide their resumes into two piles: those with PMP certification and those without.” While this means that talented project managers without a PMP will inevitably miss the cut, this isn’t a big concern for recruiters. “Today there are enough good project managers with their PMP that [recruiters] don’t have to sift through the uncertified ones,” he explains.
Some recruiters even value the certification over a master’s degree. According to Rosemary Guzman, Executive Recruiter at Hook The Talent, “The master’s is a nice to have, but the certification lets the hiring director know you already have proven experience and you’ve passed rigorous criteria approved and accepted by a national project management community [as opposed to] a lone university.”
While the PMP credential applies to managing projects in any industry, some industries weigh it more heavily than others. “Highly regulated industries (e.g., financial services, pharmaceuticals, defense and aerospace) wouldn’t consider anyone without that foundational certification,” says Tim Wasserman, Program Director of Stanford’s Advanced Project Management Program. He explains that these industries value PMP certification because it shows an ability to adhere to strictly defined processes—a valuable skill when overseeing extremely sensitive and regulated projects, such as creating a new drug for public consumption.
Wasserman is careful to note that, in his experience, only about half of the general project manager job postings he sees today require a certification. However, even if the PMP isn’t a requirement, he still thinks it can give your resume a boost.
PMP Certified Professionals Earn Higher Salaries
Once you get past the resume screen, there’s a good chance that (if hired) you’ll earn more with the certification than you would without it. In a 2011 survey of 30,000 project management professionals, PMI found that project management professionals in the United States earned an average of $111,824 per year with a PMP certification. In comparison, the average compensation of project managers without the certification was $97,829—nearly $14,000 less a year.
Project management professionals also tend to feel secure in their earning potential. The same study found that 76 percent of project management professionals expected their salary to increase in the next 12 months, while only two percent expected it to decrease.
In lieu of certification, sometimes merely having PMP training can be enough to boost your salary. Maggie Donovan decided to take a PMP training course while she was working in the financial services department at Apple. After completing the course, Donovan landed a position as the Program Manager at Dell Storage Marketing, where her salary immediately doubled.
Donovan says that being able to put PMP training on her resume helped her “gain instant credibility and attention for a role [she] otherwise wouldn’t be considered for without a four-year degree.” In her mind, it immediately put her on equal footing with candidates that had more prestigious educational backgrounds.
PMP Certification Helps You Learn a Common Language
In addition to improving her job prospects and salary, Donovan feels that the PMP training taught her to speak a language that resonates both with executives and fellow project managers. Prior to the training, she felt unable to clearly articulate the most important aspects of a project charter: the project goal, resources needed (human, material and financial) and project assumptions, risks and constraints. Donovan says that her PMP training has given her a framework for effectively conveying all of this.
David Wakeman, a PMP certified professional who sits on the Board of Directors at the Employment Support Center, echoes this sentiment. “Having an understanding of an accepted project management framework gives me the opportunity to speak with and communicate with clients and vendors on a level playing field,” he explains. This common language can cut down on the need for explanation when discussing, for example, the scope baseline of a project plan and brainstorming the best way to move forward.
Of course, it’s possible to learn these skills and best practices without formal training. However, there’s something to be said for the standardization that formal training brings. As Archbold notes, “Often times project managers will work with PMP certified individuals who are going to use terms in a certain way, so it’s useful to understand their language.” Starting from a common set of definitions and set of best practices, as good project managers will tell you, is critical to successfully managing and completing any project.
A PMP Can Help You Cash In on Demand for Project Managers
Beyond all this, project managers are currently in high demand. The Anderson Economic Group predicts that 1.2 million project management positions will need to be filled each year until 2016. The market is especially strong in the IT industry, where, according to a ComputerWorld survey, 40 percent of IT executives say they plan to hire a project management professional in the next 12 months. One way to bolster your resume and position yourself to cash in on these job opportunities is to plan ahead and obtain your certification.
If you already have the project management experience required, you can obtain your certification within a few months. If not, Donovan recommends starting with a training course. “You’ll be so much more effective at your job and understand why things get done in a certain way if you start with formal training,” she says. Once you’ve acquired enough professional experience, you can then go for the certification.
In some ways, asking whether a project manager should get their PMP is similar to asking if an accountant should obtain their Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license. You don’t need to be a CPA to manage accounts, but it’s a good career move and employers value the affirmation that comes with the certification. In the same way, you don’t need your PMP to be a project management professional, but it can help you land a job more easily and will likely result in higher compensation for the time and effort invested.
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