PMP or MS degree in Project Management?
July 11, 2019 6:56 AM   Subscribe

Question for career development specialists and those with experience in project management: In terms of general return on investment/greatest bang for one's buck, is it better to pursue a PMP certification, a master's degree in project management, or an MBA with a specialization in project management? Which approach did you take, and did it pay off? Related: If you are in the business of recruiting or hiring project managers, what types of professional development and advanced education do you look for when sifting through resumes?
posted by AnnaBegins942 to Education (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I know a lot of PMP certs and very few people with degrees in project management. I think a lot of hiring managers still think of degrees in PM as "liberal arts lite" and wonder what you learn in a degree program that you can't get as a certification, for better or for worse. It may not be fair but that's the perception. YMMV!
posted by juniperesque at 8:18 AM on July 11

I'm a project manager and I have recruited project managers, I'm based in the UK. I'd second previous poster, it's certificates that matter (in the UK it's PRINCE2 that's most commonly requested/recognised). I would raise an eyebrow at someone with project management degree but no experience, it's experience that trumps everything else as far as I've seen.
posted by coffee_monster at 8:31 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]

Thirding, in the US; have hired technology product managers. Best bang:buck ratio is PMP, hands down.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:35 AM on July 11

I worked with a company that did PMP exam prep training. We frequently heard from people who had gotten advanced degrees in project management but ended up getting nowhere. They then circled back to the PMP.

As long as you have the prerequisites for actually getting the PMP, I'd recommend doing that.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:36 AM on July 11

The PMP certification is better because it requires a certain number of hours of practical experience in all areas of PM. Scrum master is another one that’s in demand.
posted by cabingirl at 8:40 AM on July 11

I've been in the PM/EV world for a long time, and while the credential is useful-ish, most senior people I know joke about it standing for "pretty much pointless," and agree that there's no meaningful correlation between "has PMP" and "knows what the hell they're doing."

That said, if you're trying to get interviews, you might get caught out by the filter if you don't have it.

The segment of the PM world I'm in -- earned value -- is fairly small. There are certs, obviously, but it goes mostly by reputation and network hires. Actual certifications are a fallback for strangers. In the broader critical-path scheduling / PM world, they may be more useful door-openers.

The MBA is overrated. If it's a full-time program at a name-brand school, it's definitely useful. If it's an executive program at a good school, it's not useless. If it's an online program anywhere, I suspect it's just noise that will be ignored. I mean, I would.

I'm not familiar with the master's-in-PM programs, but I suspect the same rules will apply.

What's your actual goal?
posted by uberchet at 8:54 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]

Anecdata: when I started my current job, the company had two PMs. One had an MBA, the other was a PMP. The MBA has gotten a promotion to senior PM, while the PMP has quit and gotten a job somewhere else. There are some soft skill factors that played into that, and you could make a convincing case that you shouldn't do things the way my company does, but I'm just throwing it out there.

Also going to note that, of the six PMs we've hired since I started, none had any qualifications other than prior work experience.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:59 AM on July 11

I'd do the PMP if you only want work as a PM. If you want options, I'd do the MBA (at a decent school). I work as a senior PM, but I also have an MBA. I interviewed for/was offered an assistant professor job recently, which I couldn't have done with only the PMP (faculty positions require a master's or higher).

I agree that mostly this is a game of experience and your connections, and which industry you're in. Neither is specifically "useful" other than clearing HR hurdles. I know plenty of bad PMs with PMPs, and plenty of great ones who don't have the credential. I think the master's with a PM focus isn't the way to go.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 9:05 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]

Original poster here...and thanks, all. This is all very helpful.

For background, I am a PM at a quasi-government agency and have been managing a variety of projects for four years, including IT and construction projects. My bachelor's degree is in professional writing and I spent the first decade of my career in communications, including for employee and executive audiences. Same employer for 12 years. Becoming a PM was a career transition based on an opportunity that was offered based on my strengths and results in managing a fairly complex project several years ago when my department lacked a PM. I got thrown in, did a good job, and discovered that I liked the work, so here I am.

My goal in posting this question was to learn more about how to advance my own knowledge and skill sets as someone who didn't start out in this field, but has worked in it for a few years and gained some experience. I don't have a ton of time or money so I need to be strategic in pursuing further education.

I am interested in potentially specializing also - portfolio management, risk management, and methodologies for project/portfolio prioritization are all interests.
posted by AnnaBegins942 at 10:12 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]

So I'm not in HR, but I've reviewed resumes and sat on hiring committees for project managers, and I've also had junior PM-type staff report to me. I work in a government-adjacent field so some of this might be relevant anecdata.

The PMs we tend to hire are people who have experience doing PM work off the sides of their desks and who have a PMP. The related experience is key - I can think of folks with MBAs who have no actual project management experience who are instead working as admins. An MBA is useful if you want different long-term options, especially in risk management. Using a fresh MBA to break into PM is a bit of a waste and potentially a red flag, though, so it's worthwhile to get your PMP first and see where things take you.

The folks we see pursuing PM jobs with an MBA with a PM specialization or some other project management-related graduate degree are almost always people with little to no relevant experience. Because many project management graduate programs don't have very stringent work experience requirements, you sometimes see graduates with a lot of book learning, so little PM experience that they're far away from being eligible to write their PMP exam, and lack experience-tested soft skills to be successful as a PM anyway. That's not good company to be in.
posted by blerghamot at 11:43 AM on July 11

General project management certs mostly teach common-sense lessons regarding planning and communication, with the added benefit of forcing you to think about unsexy details (who exactly is going to be responsible for checking that a particular output is up to scratch; which activities depend on which other activities; how to think about what might go wrong; what to do when it does; etc), providing handy tools you may not have encountered before (burn down charts; Kanban boards; etc) and providing a common language for communicating about projects with other professionals. From the "project management" side of things, I can't see what you would gain from spending a year or more studying the subject - it's not obvious to me what benefit the extra effort would deliver.

Of course, the MBA may provide other benefits. An MBA from a good school is a high-status qualification and the course will provide amazing networking opportunities. (Have you considered an MPA?)

If you go down the certificate route, PMP would be the obvious choice since you're in the US and already working as a PM. It's a very well-recognised qualification. Further, it requires that you have previous project management experience, and that you continue working in the field to keep it valid. So it's a practical, "living" qualification, rather like a pilot's license.

If you were trying to break into project management work (and/or British), PRINCE2 might have been more appropriate. However, it tests candidates' abilities in rote memorisation, verbal reasoning, and ability to get to grips with details of its rather arbitrary and unwieldy system of "themes" and its counter-intuitive terminology. (I'm a PRINCE2 Practitioner, but I see it more as a handy credential than a profound learning experience). Also, it was developed by two organisations - Capita and the British government - that have a pretty woeful track record of delivering successful projects.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:45 PM on July 11

I am a project manager in the software industry in the US. I have a master's in technology management (a professional degree that has some MBA aspects) and do not have a PMP. Years ago my office did send me to a Scrum training but I don't remember actually whether I did the ScrumMaster or the Scrum Product Owner training. Before this I did community management for a major open source software project, and before that I did project management at a few software/tech consultancies that were each under 50 people. The first one that hired me as a project manager was (I believe) assessing that I was qualified because I was most of the way through my MS in tech management, I had done some informal project management at previous jobs and volunteer gigs, and my previous employer was one they found impressive. In my volunteer life I'd done some stage management for theater, for instance.

I run my own small consultancy and my clients have been mostly businesses under 500 people and nonprofits under 50 people. In most cases my clients came through existing professional connections, and I can't remember a potential client ever saying they were turning me down for the lack of a PMP or an MBA.

When I hire, I am much more interested in the person's practical experience than I am in a PMP certification.

I think things would be very different if I were working fulltime in a big corporation.
posted by brainwane at 6:13 AM on July 12

I have been project managing for years in the US tech industry. I learned organically, through a combo of natural intuition/talent and some excellent mentors. I did the coursework for the PMP, paid for by an employer, but never took the exam. If I were ever to get a certification of some sorts I would do the full PMP thing and would not dream of an MBA or a master's in PM.

The PMP coursework teaches some useful mechanics like earned value management that are certainly relevant in government work contexts. The one I took, almost ten years ago, didn't address Agile/scrum at all; I imagine it does to some extent these days. It's useful to learn a bit about those concepts and why people think one methodology is better than another so that in the end you can do what is almost always the right thing, which is to pick and choose from each methodology to the extent it is right for your project rather than religiously ascribing to one or the other.
posted by olinerd at 10:48 AM on July 12

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