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Should I get a Master’s Degree in Project Management?

Should I Get a Master's Degree in Project Management?

Should I get a Master’s Degree in Project Management? I’ve gotten that question a lot from both project managers and undergraduate students who are interested in getting into a project management career. I happen to have a lot of expertise that is relevant to that question because some years ago I was an Adjunct Professor at Boston Univerity. At that time, I was involved in helping them develop a strategy to update their Master’s in Project Management program to make it more consistent with Agile.

The Challenge for Universities

There’s a big challenge that many universities face because the project management profession is going through some very radical and significant changes as a result of the influence of Agile. The changes I proposed to Boston University some years ago never really got off the ground because:

  • It is so difficult for any university to make the radical changes in their curriculum that may be required
  • The future direction of project management is still evolving and even PMI hasn’t developed a clearly-defined and well-integrated Agile Project Management approach

Why Is This So Difficult?

The experience I had working with Boston University gave me a lot of insight into university graduate-level project management programs. The key problem that all universities like Boston University are wrestling with is that the changes that are related to Agile are so significant that they cause us to rethink what “project management” is:

  • In today’s world, traditional plan-driven project management approaches that have been in place since the 1950’s and 1960’s don’t work well in projects with a high level of uncertainty and that is becoming increasingly common in some areas such as software development
  • Another factor is that an excessive emphasis on planning and control can stifle the creativity and innovation that is needed to develop leading-edge, highly-competitive products

What’s Been Done to Date

PMI and major universities with project management programs have been struggling to adapt to these changes that demand a more flexible and adaptive project management approach:

  • For a long time, Agile wasn’t even recognized as a legitimate form of project management
  • In 2013, PMI introduced the PMI-ACP certification which recognized the importance of Agile but Agile and traditional plan-driven project management were still treated as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two
  • In 2017, PMI published PMBOK v6 which includes some references to Agile and the PMI Agile Practice Guide . That was a step in the right direction but it barely scratches the surface of whatt neds to be done to develop a well-integrated approach to project manageent that blends both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management
  • PMI clearly plans to continue moving in this direction but its a huge challenge and progress has been slow. Current indications are that PMI will add more content to the PMP exam in July of 2020 and PMBOK v7 will also include more Agile content but it really needs much more than that.

Primary Things to Consider

I think that there are two primary considerations that anyone should consider in making a decision to get a master’s degree in project management:

1. The Impact of Agile

The project management profession is going through huge changes right now as a result of the influence of Agile and many universities have not updated their curriculum to reflect that. Even PMI is still struggling to figure out how to develop a well-integrated approach to project management that fully embraces both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management. Check out these articles for more on that: What’s the Future of Project Management and What’s the Impact of Agile?

The key point is this:

You cannot ignore the impact of Agile. Any project manager who only knows how to do traditional plan-driven project management and attempts to force-fit all projects to that approach will have a very limited future in many areas such as software development.

2. The Value of Real-world Experience

A master’s degree in project management without any real-world experience has limited value. Successful project management is heavily based on practical, real-world experience which is learned through the “School of Hard Knocks” rather than academic theory:

  • A project manager who hasn’t been burned at least once or twice by a project going south is typically considered naïve and would be difficult to trust for a large, complex project that is critical tot he success of a business
  • A project manager who has never successfully completed a major project is very inexperienced regardless of what academic degrees that he/she may have

The key point is:

You should not expect to automatically and easily get a job just because you have a master’s degree in project management if you have no real-world experience.

Overall Summary

I have nothing against master’s degree programs. I have two of them myself (an MSEE and an MBA). I even decided to go beyond my MBA and get a Certificate in Advanced Management. Graduate programs can provide a lot of high-level insight but some people may tend to load up on academic degrees thinking that the academic degree itself will guaranty a higher-level job. I believe that graduate-level degrees are very worthwhile but no graduate degree should be an end-in-itself. In most professional areas, a graduate degree should supplement and enhance whatever practical, real-world experience you have. That’s particularly imporant in project management where pracitcal, real-world experience is so important.

3 thoughts on “Should I get a Master’s Degree in Project Management?”

  1. Hi Chuck,
    This is great insight into whether a masters is appropriate. The real world experience angle is very valid.
    For sure PMI is moving towards Agile. I think a new middle ground, the Hybrid Agile approach, will emerge like a volcano rising out of the sea. I think PMI’s acquistion of DAD reflects this too.
    I have recently become quite bemused why the Agile community refer to waterfall when talking about traditional project management. For complex system design, waterfall was displaced by the V-System about 15 years ago. Maybe I work in a different domain to many in the Agile community (complex system, IC, electronics, mechanics, PLM). The V-System has a lot to offer, especially for high-integrity systems. Also note that V-System approaches often incorporate iterative-V, with maybe two or three cycles before the production version of the product. I believe a significant future mainstream approach will be Agile with a V-System overlay.

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