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Why You Shouldn’t Get a Masters Degree for Project Management

by jameskm03 via Flickr

Let me explain.

I receive many questions from my Project Management Career Newsletter about degrees.

  • Should I get an MBA or a Master’s degree in Project Management?
  • I have a BS or BA in an unrelated discipline. Should I go back to school for an advanced business or PM degree?
  • I just got laid off. Should I go back to school for a Master’s degree?

All great questions.

Education is Never Wasted

If you apply yourself while learning, and apply your learning while working.

Let me get this straight. I’m not against higher education. Not at all.

But here’s the deal. It’s easy to see that everyone who undertakes an advanced degree is going to get at least some benefit from doing so.

The nuance comes from the ROI of a particular degree in your chosen discipline and industry, and if the degree is in line with your career goals.

Too many people get a degree so they are at least “doing something” to better themselves.

For the Wrong Reasons

Too many times I see good people who start running down a particular path without having first decided their purpose and goals.

It would be like starting on a project without understanding why you are doing it, or what it is you hope to see as the end result. It’s jumping to the “how” before figuring out the “why” and “what” in concrete terms.

Write it Down

What I recommend in my Project Management Career Coaching course is to write some things down and make them explicit. It’s a minimal investment in time to plan your career, and well worth it.

It is uncomfortable however. For some reason long-range planning always is. I created some worksheets in the course specifically to help make the process less painful. They are part of a methodology for assessing your starting point, what you hope to achieve and why, and formulating a plan of attack.

Regardless of whether or not you are starting with blank sheet of paper or one of my series of worksheets, write it down. Make it explicit for yourself. You owe this to yourself.

  1. Take a deep breath and some time to get clear on a 10-year goal. I mean crystal. Write a few paragraphs about your role, the people you work with, your office, salary, benefits, how many hours you work per week, where you live, etc.
  2. From that 10-year goal, start working back and doing 5, 3, 2, and 1-year goals. Again, crystal clear.
  3. Now formulate the “how” with specific activities you will need to do to achieve those goals.
  4. Execute
  5. Rinse and repeat annually (your goals will change over time as you progress and learn more)

Does Higher Education Fit?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

I see a 4-year undergraduate degree (in something) as the pre-requisite for most organizations for a project manager or line manager.

Frankly, in most cases my opinion is that working hard to land a job even as a junior project manager is going to pay dividends for your career more so than a Master’s degree in Project Management or an MBA. That is, if your goal is to be a project manager in the short term.

Plus you avoid that student loan debt.

If your 10-year goal includes a higher level executive position, then perhaps a Master’s degree is going to be part of the requirements. Even so, do you have to go back to school immediately?

If your plans in the next 1-5 years don’t require the advanced degree, I’ll argue you are better off starting a savings account for that education at a a future date. Avoid the debt, or at least some of it. In the meantime, focus on gaining experience. And more experience. And more.

Experience Rules

I also talk to many of you who have an advanced degree, even a degree in Project Management, with little or no experience actually managing projects.

With everything else equal, I’d rather hire someone who has 2 years of experience managing projects and no advanced degree, than someone with a Master’s in Project Management and no experience actually doing it.

In project management, experience rules.

A primary focus of the Project Management Career Coaching course I produce is (after you’ve figured out why and what) how to land a project management position. This is because I want you to gain experience managing projects. It’s the best way to learn, and the biggest boon to your value in the job market.

Why You Shouldn’t Get a Masters Degree for Project Management is a post from: pmStudent

I love to help new project managers and working project managers further their careers.

I also offer online project management training for you!

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Stephen Peteritas

I’m with you Josh… a lot of the jobs where you deal with people are better off being equipped with experience rather than degrees. But still stay in school kids!

Jeff Ribeira

Great advice! All in all, I firmly believe that any amount of education will make a person better off than they were. However, all too often people rush into advanced degrees thinking it’s what they want (or that it’s what’s expected) only to find a few years later it actually had very minimal ROI in their actual career path. Planning and introspection are key. My own opinion is get to know your field and yourself through some meaningful experiences first, and then take the plunge.

Josh Nankivel

Great points Jeff and Stephen! It’s also important to note that after being in the trenches for awhile, you have a better idea of what an advanced degree would do for your career. It also means more and you get more education from it when you can relate to the subject matter from you own personal work experiences.

Thanks for the great comments guys!

Scott Thomas

This is great! I’m a project manager and planning on starting my masters degree in fall 2012. My job requires a masters degree, but the hard part now is choosing what, where, and how! I’m inclined to do something other than a MBA, but I’ll be lucky enough to get my degree and work full time! Experience + education = awesome!

Eric W. Logan

Take a look at the PMI Institute ( http://www.pmi.org/) for certification options. While formal education is never wasted, it seems that the public sector values formal degrees while the private sector values strong certifications … especially in the practitioner realms (those responsible for actual implementations and delivery vs. strategy and management). Having formal education and strong certification with real world experience is a bonus. You may find the certification path more challenging due to the experience and continuing education requirements but you will be much more prepared for Public and Private sector work. Finally, if you like project management and you are currently employed in a place where you can excercise it – do it! Find ways to volunteer for assignments (large or small) to help you see the joys and challenges of the role…. and always remember that a good project manager is at his or her core … a good manager and a good leader.

Tim J. Clark

Agree on the importance of experience. Education always a good supplement to experience – both support learning. Good thing these days is the variety of options that include the formal, certifications, self-study, on-the-job, internet based courses, on-line collaboration tools, blogs et. al.


This post has some good advice but I find it difficult to separate the advice from the self-promotion of the poster.

Josh Nankivel

Scott, Eric, Tim, and Michelle, thanks for the comments! Michelle, sorry if the links to my training were distracting…but since I designed it to help people through issues like this it seemed a natural fit.

Tony Darlington


Thank you for this posting as I have been struggling with the questions “Should I get a Master’s Degree? Why do I need one? If I need one, which should I choose?”. I have asked colleages and some academic advisors these questions and most times the reply is what are you interested in, and it is up to you; neither has been helpful in making this decision.

Reading through your post I now have a foundation to make the determination regarding my Master’s Degree future or not.

Again, thanks for sharing your experience for our benefit.

Josh Nankivel

Thanks Tony, that’s about the highest praise you could have given me. I’m truly thankful you found the article helpful!

Carol Davison

I work in performance and development in HR. My thoughts:

1. Ensure that you are not wasting time acquiring additional debt you don’t need. Sometimes its better to wait tables than to get a $50,000 student loan.

2. Outside of government it appears that certifications count.

3. Inside government degrees seem to count. They even give additional credits on crediting plans that rate and rank your applicaiton.