You’re interested in becoming a project manager – a career that’s held up well during the recession, with six-figure average salaries.
To enter this field, should you pursue a master’s in project management online? What about an MBA with an emphasis in project management or just a plain online management master’s?
Bill Haskins, director of the online master’s in project management programs at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, believes a degree in project management can really help an applicant grab an employer’s eye.
“There are many, many hundreds of online MBA programs out there – degrees recognized in the business community, almost to the point where it doesn’t really get the employer’s attention any more,” he says.
“The project management degree sets the applicant apart from the rest of the pack. That’s important…You need something that will bring you to the top.”
Project management is a growing profession that covers multiple industries. Project managers work in computer and information technology (IT), construction, real estate development and other fields. The job involves planning, organizing and coordinating complex ventures.
Haskins says that project management focuses on aspects of business that are temporary in nature. As an example, he notes that IT enterprises are comprised almost entirely of contract employees who put machinery and hardware in place to make everything work, and then exit.
Similarly, construction work is temporary, since “every building that goes up is a project.”
The most successful project managers, says Haskins, are those who “can be very flexible.” Good project managers “can see the big picture – they are able to keep that in mind as they lead projects.”
By contrast, he says, “people who are process-oriented, who like routine, who like honing in on minute detail have an important place in business – but don’t make good project managers.”
Project management master’s degrees emphasize project administration and activities relating to the temporary nature of business. MBA programs, on the other hand, “focus on the functional aspects of business – finance, accounting and so forth,” says Haskins.
Vittal Anantatmula, director of the master’s in project management programs at Western Carolina University
, says the MBA is a better fit for students who want to own a business or become CEOs of their own companies.
“The MBA includes all management subjects, and it aims to provide general management competency,” says Anantatmula.
MBA programs, however, often require more credits – up to 54, says Anantatmula – and take more time and money. At Western Carolina University, online project management students take six online courses, each worth six credits, for a total of only 36 credits.
Students at Western Carolina must have project management experience before enrolling. They take the online degree program because they “want to do a better job in their workplace, they want to do it more scientifically,” Anantatmula says.
Similarly, UW-Platteville students who opt for a major in project management online are typically older, working students, says Haskins. “Almost all of our students come to us with a set of technical skills and experience. Their careers won’t advance much further without an understanding of management.”
Software developer Greg Streletz graduated in 2010 with an online master’s in project management from UW-Platteville. When he began doing project work for his firm, Citadel Investment Group in Chicago, he saw the need to learn project management skills.
Without project managers, he says, “projects are typically run ad hoc,” and whether they are managed well or not depends on the skills of whoever gets assigned the lead, plus a bit of luck. “Formal project management is a way to deal with the chaos,” he says.
Streletz says he never considered getting an MBA. He was influenced at a previous by a project manager, who introduced him to formal project planning and other project management tools.
“The project management degree opens up some new opportunities,” Streletz says. “I’ve been doing the technical end of things for 10 years now. Now I can maybe move into software project management.”
Lorna Collier has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years, with specialties in education, technology, business and health.