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What Is a Project Manager?

A woman acting as a project manager

When you think of a project manager, you might think of someone who’s in charge of “stuff” and “things,” and that they are the person who makes sure everything on a project gets done. In many ways, that’s absolutely true. But there’s so much more to being a project manager than keeping tabs on a project.

So, what is a project manager, and what does a project manager do? 

Project Manager Definition

As the job title indicates, a project manager manages and supervises projects from start to finish. They might oversee the development of a new type of software or keep tabs on a construction project. In a nutshell, a project manager makes sure the project stays on time and on budget, troubleshooting when things don’t go as planned and keeping everyone in the loop throughout the project’s lifecycle.

How Much Does a Project Manager Make? 

Project manager salary varies depending on how many years of experience a project manager has and the industry they work in.

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for a project management specialist was $94,500 in 2021 across all industries. But within specific industries, the median annual salary for the same job title was:

  • Finance and insurance: $101,880
  • Professional, scientific, and technical services: $99,520
  • Manufacturing: $96,940
  • Administrative and support services: $90,950
  • Building construction: $81,600

Average wages for project managers in certain industries, like oil and gas extraction, can climb even higher — with the top 10% of earners making more than $159,140

What Does a Project Manager Do?

A project manager is responsible for keeping track of their project or projects from inception to completion. That includes tasks like: 

  • Making sure people have the tools and supplies they need to complete their part of the project
  • Keeping track of budgets, ensuring people aren’t spending too much on items or not going over their allotted billable hours
  • Being the central point of contact for communications between various stakeholders.
  • Ensuring everyone collaborates and resolving conflicts when they arise
  • Troubleshooting when things go wrong

A Typical Project Manager Day

If you think the above sounds like the tasks of almost every job, you’re not wrong. A lot of what anyone does in any job includes some type of project management. However, for project managers, these tasks are the primary function of the role.

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We spoke to Mei Lin, Senior Business Program Manager at Microsoft, and asked her to describe a typical day on the job as a project manager:

A typical day involves daily meetings with different stakeholders from across the organization to ensure projects are on time and that we are resolving any blockers along the way. At the start of each day, I normally review my schedule, prioritize my day and prepare for each meeting in order to be proactive and to communicate effectively with stakeholders. It’s very similar to managing your classes and assignments as a student; finding time to focus on important tasks helps to keep your work progressing until completion. Most project managers are working on multiple projects at the same time, so it’s important to identify critical tasks daily so you can run your projects concurrently.

What Industries Do Project Managers Work In?

Project managers work in almost every industry. Why? Because most companies need someone who can manage the largest and smallest of projects. You can find project manager jobs in fields as varied as construction, IT, solar power, and finance.

That said, the BLS notes that a majority of project managers work in the following industries:

  • Professional, scientific, and technical services: 29%
  • Building construction: 10%
  • Manufacturing: 7%
  • Administrative and support services: 6%
  • Finance and insurance: 6%

How to Become a Project Manager

While some schools offer degrees in project management, an undergraduate degree is not necessarily required to become a project manager. People who become project managers may have a degree in business, but, as Lin notes, “Project managers come from different backgrounds and majors. For example, my dual bachelor’s degree was in law and social work.”

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So, not having a specific undergraduate degree or even lacking a bachelor’s degree is not a barrier to becoming a project manager. But what can make a huge difference in your candidacy and career is being a certified project manager. 

While there are different project manager certifications, Lin recommends the Project Management Institute (PMI) certifications. “They are recognized around the world,” she says. And obtaining one of these certifications helps hiring managers see that you have the professional qualifications you’ll need to be successful in the role.

There are two PMI certifications you can pursue:

    • If you have a bachelor’s degree, you’ll need 36 months of project management experience (as a lead) within the last eight years and 35 hours of project management training
    • If you do not have a bachelor’s degree, you can still take the exam as long as you have 60 months of experience in the last eight years and 35 hours of project management training.

    You’ll also need to fill out an application that describes where you’ve worked, what you’ve accomplished, and how long your projects lasted, along with an accounting of the project manager training you’ve completed.

    Lin says the PMI is also an excellent resource for students and young professionals who want to learn more about becoming a project manager. KICKOFF™ is a free tool that can help you learn more about the basics of project management. Once you’ve completed the course, you’ll get a digital badge you can add to your LinkedIn profile.

    >>MORE: 10 Common Project Manager Interview Questions

    Another free tool from the PMI is Career Navigator. The tool helps you engage in self-reflection and figure out what you want your project management career to look like. Then it suggests actions you can take to bring that career plan to life.

    Beyond getting a certification, though, Lin says that another valuable way students can start their project manager career is by joining a local PMI chapter. With both in-person and virtual events, “It’s a place where you can meet people from the profession and network across industries and geographies.”

    She also points out that there’s no time like the present to build and use your project management skills. “Even through your day-to-day life (like project managing a vacation), you’ll be showcasing the spirit of project management to get things done!”

    What Skills Does a Project Manager Need?

    It probably goes without saying that a project manager needs superior organizational and attention to detail skills! However, Lin notes that to be a successful project manager, developing your interpersonal skills is crucial.

    “For someone just starting out in project management, cultivating and demonstrating your interpersonal skills — or power skills — can really help to set you apart, especially at an interview for an entry-level position. Building effective working relationships is critical to project managers as we work with people all the time. Collaboration, communication, empathy, and having an innovative mindset will help early career project managers drive progress in their projects.”

    Learn more about other career paths.

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