Many aspiring project managers ask me on X / Twitter: how do I break into the field and land my first project management job? It’s a competitive industry, but with the right strategy, it’s possible to achieve this easily. In this article, I’ll provide insider tips on how to position yourself as an attractive candidate for that critical first project management role. Whether you’re changing careers or fresh out of school, these practical steps will guide you on the path to launching your PM career.
Even if your current job isn’t in project management, there are still opportunities to build relevant skills. Immerse yourself fully in your role and take on new challenges that allow you to problem-solve, lead teams, and manage stakeholders.
Look for ways to streamline processes and implement solutions to make your department run more efficiently. For example, volunteer to lead an effort to revamp outdated protocols or reduce redundancies in your team’s workflow. Demonstrating this kind of initiative shows you can identify and solve pain points, a key skill for project managers.
Also, raise your hand to coordinate cross-functional efforts, even if they are small in scope. For instance, you could offer to manage communications for a new product launch initiative that requires collaboration between departments. Guiding alignment and keeping everyone on track will let you exercise critical project coordination abilities.
In addition, aim to gain more direct oversight of team members if possible. Seek leadership opportunities to manage schedules, track progress, and coach teammates. The experience of guiding a team through assignments and keeping projects on budget will prove invaluable.
Finally, don’t be afraid to get into the project management weeds. Offer to create project plans, risk management strategies, and requirements documents for your team. The more exposure you gain to core PM methodologies, the better prepared you’ll be.
With some strategic volunteering and self-initiative, you can transform your current role into a project management training ground. By actively applying PM principles and techniques, you’ll gain the experience needed to demonstrate you’re ready to manage projects full-time.
When applying for project management jobs, your resume needs to emphasize relevant skills and experience. While you may not have a PM title, you can reframe past accomplishments to highlight transferable competencies.
First, incorporate industry terminology to describe your work. For example, don’t just say you “managed team schedules,” say you “developed project plans and timelines” and, if the team followed a specific methodology / framework (Agile, Waterfall, etc.), make sure to mention this as well.
Also, quantify your achievements and focus on the value you delivered in each role. Rather than simply listing duties, describe how your performance drove impactful business outcomes. For instance, “Reduced costs by 10% by optimizing cross-departmental workflows and implementing new protocols” demonstrates you understand how to improve processes and cut expenses.
Emphasize soft skills like leadership, communication, and relationship building. Provide examples of how you motivated teams, mitigated conflict, and facilitated collaboration between stakeholders. These capabilities are essential for keeping projects on track.
Finally, align your skills and accomplishments directly to the requirements in the job description. This will showcase how you are qualified for the specific PM responsibilities at that company.
When first breaking into project management, consider targeting roles at startups and smaller companies. Though the brand names may not be as impressive, these environments often provide the best opportunities to gain hands-on experience and hone your skills.
In early-stage companies, responsibilities tend to be more fluid. You’re more likely to wear multiple hats and get exposure to different aspects of launching products and managing projects end-to-end. The variety of experiences you can gain is invaluable preparation for a career in PM.
The fast pace also means more opportunities to pick up new abilities on the fly. Adapting to rapidly evolving needs and priorities will build critical thinking and agility. These startup “trial by fire” experiences will serve you well in navigating PM challenges throughout your career.
Moreover, without rigid corporate bureaucracy, you’ll have more autonomy to take initiative and flex your problem-solving muscles.
Of course, the brand recognition of larger corporations still carries weight. But a few years proving yourself in a scrappy, growing company can open more prestigious doors down the road. The skills and confidence you build will demonstrate your readiness for bigger PM responsibilities.
When first starting your project management career, taking an entry-level role can provide that invaluable first step. Positions like project coordinator, associate project manager, or junior PM will allow you to get your foot in the door.
In these roles, you’ll have the chance to learn the ropes and gain hands-on experience supporting projects. While your responsibilities may be limited at first, being exposed to how PMs oversee budgets, resources, and work streams end-to-end provides invaluable insight.
Aim to make yourself indispensable. Demonstrating you can take initiative and add value will prove your readiness for more responsibility. Also, tap into your manager as a mentor and seek their guidance for professional growth.
While the compensation may be lower, focus on building capabilities, expanding your network, and absorbing everything you can. With a year of experience in coordinating projects and assisting senior PMs under your belt, you’ll gain the knowledge needed to confidently step into a full PM role.
Some schools of thought say you should hold out for a manager title from the start. But beginning in an entry-level role enables you to learn the job from the ground up while getting paid. Leveraging these opportunities can provide that critical first step to jumpstart your PM career – even if your title doesn’t yet reflect the role you aspire to long-term.
Acing the interview is critical to landing your first project management role. Here are some tips to help you make a winning impression:
First, practice responses to common PM interview questions so you can articulate your experience confidently. Prepare stories that demonstrate leadership, collaboration, and problem-solving using real examples. Quantify your achievements and contributions using metrics and data.
Also, get familiar with frameworks like Agile, Scrum, and Waterfall. Use the proper terminology to discuss approaches you’ve used to estimate timelines, manage resources, assess risks, and facilitate team communication.
Consider leveraging generative AI like ChatGPT to practice responses and refine your pitch. Rehearsing with an AI can help polish your answers so you deliver them fluidly. The AI can also pinpoint phrases to avoid and provide feedback to improve your delivery. [Off-topic: Interview preparation was not covered in our eBook “The Best ChatGPT Prompts for Project Management“, but you might still want to download it. It will help you along the way, and it’s completely free!]
During the interview, come prepared with thoughtful questions that show your understanding of the company and role.
Lastly, express enthusiasm and underscore how the position aligns with your abilities and passion for project management. Convey confidence that you have the right skills and experiences to drive outcomes and add value in the role.
Here is an extra tip, inspired by my own professional experience: working in business consulting, especially in IT, can provide great project management exposure to help jumpstart your career.
Consulting firms regularly take on large client initiatives that require coordinated project and program management. Companies often outsource these efforts to tap into the project leadership and execution capabilities of the consultancy.
As a consultant, you may not immediately serve in a dedicated PM capacity. However, by leveraging your domain expertise on client projects, you gain firsthand visibility into how project engagements are scoped, staffed, and managed. You have opportunities to support project activities across planning, delivery, risk mitigation, and stakeholder communication.
This hands-on participation immerses you directly in PM methodologies and best practices. You witness what works and doesn’t work in navigating complex initiatives successfully.
Moreover, as you demonstrate competencies in specific areas like requirements gathering or quality assurance, you may begin to take on leadership of workstreams. With proven performance, you can organically transition into increasingly project-focused responsibilities.
Eventually, a high-performing consultant with both domain knowledge and PM abilities can be a prime candidate to fully manage client engagements. This elevation allows you to put all the lessons learned into practice while guiding an initiative from end-to-end.
Breaking into project management may seem daunting, but taking the right steps positions you for success in landing that critical first role.
Whether it’s reframing your experience, targeting roles in startups, or acing the interview, this guide provides actionable tips to help launch your PM career. Now that you’re armed with insider strategies, it’s time to put them into practice on your journey to become a project leader.
Be sure to share this article with other aspiring PMs in your network who could benefit from a roadmap to kickstarting their project management careers. With determination and the right approach, you can turn your passion into a profession even without prior PM experience.
Wishing you the best of luck as you take the next steps toward your goal!
Italian cloud computing professional with a strong background in project management & several years of international experience in business consulting. His expertise lies in bridging the gap between business stakeholders & developers, ensuring seamless project delivery. During his free time, he enjoys fatherhood and immersing himself in nature.