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Project Management Certification or a Master’s Degree: Which Should You Get?

By Leanne Bateman

Leanne Bateman HeadshotAs the program chair of the Project & Program Management program at Brandeis GPS, one of the most frequent questions I have gotten over my 11 years at Brandeis University is this: Which is more important and valuable, Project Management Certification (Project Management Professional, or PMP) or a Master’s Degree in Project Management?

Honestly, the answer depends on what you want to accomplish in your career. The options are: work as a full-time Project Manager for a company, work as a project management consultant or just gain project management knowledge and experience in your non-project management related role.

If you’re primarily interested in working as a project management consultant—which involves either working through an agency on assignment at a company, or contracting directly with a company—then the Project Management Institute’s PMP certification is the first credential agencies and companies will expect. Coupling the PMP with Master’s Degree in Project Management will add tremendous value and distinguish you from other consultants/contractors. If your interest is to work as a full-time Project Manager for a company, then both credentials will help you get the job, but the Master’s degree is far more valuable and says much more about your commitment to your project management career. Similarly, if you’re currently a manager or employee interested in learning more about project management and integrating that discipline into your daily work, then once again, the Master’s degree is the way to go. And, your company may be able to contribute to your tuition.

The difference between the two credentials is this: PMP certification is a short-term study of the hard skills and knowledge needed to be a professional project manager, and this knowledge is validated through a 200-question exam that takes about four hours to complete. While there are requirements that must be fulfilled prior to taking the exam, they can be interpreted differently and unless the exam candidate is audited by PMI, the requirements may or may not be equal from candidate to candidate. Also, according to PMI, the number of PMPs has increased by 40,000-80,000 each year since 2009; this increase further dilutes the value of PMP certification.

With a Master’s Degree in Project Management, the value is greater on several levels:

  • First, because of the longer-term period of study over 10 graduate-level college courses, the breadth and depth of academic and experiential knowledge is more extensive. This knowledge covers not only the hard skills of project management but more importantly, the soft skills so critical for a successful project manager: leadership, communication, conflict resolution, influence, negotiation and team building.
  • Also, a Master’s degree in Project Management is more discerning to potential employers since few project managers have this credential.
  • Finally—and importantly—a graduate program whose faculty possess real-world experience as professional project managers is invaluable as they demonstrate the applicability of the hard and soft skills in actual projects and programs.

If one thing is certain in project management, it is that despite any earned credentials, practical experience is the most valuable credential of all. So, a Master’s Degree in Project Management taught by experienced faculty and demonstrated through practical coursework exercises is the next best thing to actually working as a professional project manager.

Leanne Bateman, MA, PMP, CSM, Six Sigma Green Belt, CIP is the program chair of the Project and Program Management program at Brandeis University Graduate Professional Studies, and the Principal Consultant with Beacon Strategy Group, a Boston-based management firm specializing in project management services. Leanne has 20+ years of project management experience across the areas of health care, biotech/pharmaceuticals, information technology, high-tech manufacturing, human resources, construction, housing/real estate, government, and higher education. 

Faces of GPS is an occasional series that profiles Brandeis University Graduate Professional Studies students, faculty and staff. Find more Faces of GPS stories here.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for the detailed comparison and advice. I’ve recently completed my prince2 certification online from 1training (here’s the link: https://www.1training.org/course-cat/project-quality-management/prince2-project-management/) and I’m now considering going for a professional degree in project management as well to strengthen my skills and get an edge in my career.

    What would you suggest, shall I go for a degree as well?

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