PMP Certifications: What You Need to Know to Succeed – A U.S. News Guide

Project Management Professional certification is not required for project managers, but it’s often considered an essential benchmark of your knowledge in the field and will help you advance in your career.

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You need at least a few years of experience in project management to even sit for a PMP test, and it requires weeks – if not months – of study. But getting those initials by your name can help spark recruiter interest on LinkedIn and open the eyes of higher-ups at your company.

The first PMP certification exam was offered by the Project Management Institute in 1984, and more than 1 million people have earned the certification since then.

Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t as important for a project manager to have the PMP certification, says Vijay Kanabar, associate professor and director of project management programs at Boston University’s Metropolitan College and an international authority on project management.

“Today, I’ll be surprised if you will find any HR manager releasing a job description for traditional project management (roles) without mentioning the word PMP,” says Kanabar, who has earned the certification and has led PMP exam preparation for more than 20 years.

PMP certification isn’t the only project management credential recognized in the industry. PMI also offers the Certified Associate in Project Management title. It is geared toward college students and lower-level professionals and has much lower prerequisites than a PMP. PMI is regularly revising the PMP exam to stay up-to-date with current project management trends and theories.

How Different People Obtained PMP Certifications

People want to earn PMP certification because it is fast becoming an industry standard. Whether they are full-time executives or in between jobs, project-management professionals hope certification provides them long-term career benefits.

Here is a look at professionals who have chosen to pursue PMP certification, why they did it and the benefits they’ve seen from it. One even pursued the credential during the coronavirus pandemic, when most test-preparation classes and even some tests were taken remotely.

Cindy Stonesifer

Senior Manager, Change Management

Cindy Stonesifer is a lifelong learner who saw the PMP certification as a chance to keep up with changes in her profession. She has worked in change management at Duke Energy since 1993 and also teaches at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in its Project Management Certification program.

In her role, she has seen project management evolve over time.

Early in her career, “the role of project manager was really not well-defined,” she says. “The business really didn’t have consistent expectations of what they thought a project manager would do.”

After earning her certification in 2008, she has seen more consistency in what is expected of project managers, which is in part because of increased awareness of the PMP, she says.

“Customers now have strong expectations of what they expect of me,” Stonesifer says. “The bar has risen tremendously on what a project manager does. (The PMP) really has moved my career along. It’s helped me grow and develop.”

As an educator, she has seen continual revisions and additions in the PMI coursework, primarily in the PMI’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. She also has kept her PMP certification current, which is required by PMI.

“That’s an advantage of having a certification,” she says. “You don’t get stale because there’s new stuff all the time.”

When she was preparing to take the exam, Stonesifer used a two-pronged approach – individual study and regular group meetings. She purchased study guides and also built a study team with three others that met for several weeks before the test.

“We met once a week and took a process from the PMBOK,” she says. They took turns as leader for each process and took project roles that they had the least experience in, so they could learn more overall.

“It put structure to studying for the exam,” Stonesifer says. “It was fun, too, because every time one of us took the test and passed, we had a party.”

Robert Fritz

Robert Fritz started out in software development, then completed a master’s degree at Boston University in 2007 with a PMP certification.

“From there I moved into project and program management,” he says. “I’ve been involved with that – not necessarily as a core – the entire time.”

His work passion has been community engagement, focusing on delivering value through online communities.

The PMP certification “certainly opened doors, because I had a new skill set I did not have previously,” he says. “I began to see the power and value of the PMP” and how it could ensure timely product delivery and provide customer value.

Listening to customers is vital before you release and market a product because you don’t always know what they are thinking, Fritz says. Through the PMP, he learned how to get better insights about customer experiences.

He prepared for the PMP through his BU master’s program. While project-management experience is a requirement for the exam, it’s not enough to pass the test, he says. “Don’t assume because you’ve been a (project manager) at some company 10 to 15 years that you can just walk in and pass it. You really need to prepare yourself.”

PMI project-management theory is more formalized, while it’s more loosely structured in the field, Fritz says.

“You need to push the reset button and realize you need to be really disciplined when prepping for the PMP,” he says. “It’s not an easy test.”

Fritz says it’s critical for anyone who wants to be successful in project management to get the certification and maintain it through PMI education and networking groups.

“The knowledge you gain is going to sustain you through your career,” he says.

Lorena Stanberry

When Lorena Stanberry was looking for a job, she found it was her PMP certification that helped her the most in landing interviews, not her experience and education.

She earned her certification while working at an outsourcing company about 10 years ago. During her job search soon after, “that PMP put me to the top of the stack, even though I had all the experience that was listed in my resume,” Stanberry says. “The hiring manager did not have to look at my resume to know I was qualified. They could just see my name and acronym and they knew – she has experience, let’s look deeper.”

She now works for a major financial institution, has earned a master’s and doctorate, and teaches a course at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte’s Project Management Certification program.

Stanberry’s first experience with the PMP exam was eye-opening. She studied the PMBOK Guide and took a prep course but still failed. Before her second try, she purchased a couple of study guides and took practice tests that helped her get into the PMI mindset.

This is important because the project-management scenarios describe what she calls the perfect project. “It’s not real life,” Stanberry says. “You have to understand the methodology and what they’re trying to teach you.”

When she advises her students and others about how to prepare for the test, she suggests they forget everything they know. “Only focus on what PMI wants you to know and then go sit for the exam.”

She finds the PMP renewal requirement of 60 hours of continuing education over a three-year period to be helpful.

“It makes you stay up with the latest trends of what’s happening in the project management world,” she says. “Things change.”

One of the major shifts in the project management world has been the increased use of agile management, she says.

The PMP provides a holistic view of project management that’s valuable for managers, she says.

“When you’re doing the job, a lot of times you’re doing one piece of a project,” Stanberry says. “You’re not necessarily doing it from start to finish.” Getting the PMP certification “really makes you concentrate and understand how everything is connected, which makes you better at doing your job.”

Jim Hurney

Jim Hurney worked his way up in the Coca-Cola organization, starting as a truck driver in South Boston before eventually becoming a master data specialist working on a project that reorganized the entire U.S. bottler system.

Despite his years of IT-related project management experience, he never had a chance to earn his PMP certification. After he retired from Coca-Cola, he lost his next job because of the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Hurney decided it was time to earn his PMP. Getting the certification would help validate the experience he had, Hurney says.

When he started looking at the exam-preparation materials from PMI, he was impressed.

“It’s amazing the depth the PMI team has down on projects,” Hurney says. “I’ve never managed a project to that level.”

Hurney chose an online PMP prep class because of coronavirus-related concerns. The four-day course through Project Management Academy went exceptionally well, he says.

After the course, he realized he needed to study another 40 to 60 hours before the exam. He took a four-hour online proctored exam and passed. “Hands down, that was one of the hardest tests I’ve taken in my life,” he says.

In exam prep, Hurney recommends focusing on what PMI is teaching you, not your past projects. “Take your experience out of the mix and go in there with an open mind,” he adds.

After exam certification in October, the effects on his job search were immediate. “I had a very large uptick in recruiters pinging me on LinkedIn for project-based roles,” he says.

Hurney has had several interviews and is looking for a specialized role that incorporates his master data experience.

“It’s worth your time,” he says of the PMP certification.

Who Is PMP Certification for?

PMP certification is vital for project managers in a variety of industries, including health care, financial services, construction, manufacturing and information services.

Kanabar has trained more than 2,000 people who have become PMP certified and says about 40% of them were from the information technology sector.

“This credential is widespread across disciplines,” Kanabar says. “I’ve not seen a single discipline that does not recognize and appreciate that.”

Kanabar earned his PMP certification 25 years ago and has seen the growth of the certification as a major reason why project managers now have a uniform vocabulary to use.

A PMP certification allows you to master the art and science of things like managing risk, quality, communications, resources and project scope, Kanabar says. Once the project starts, you’ll know how to control variances in cost and scheduling, as well as provide analytics and data to bring the project back on track.

The updated exam should make the test even more relevant by incorporating more about agile project management, he adds.

PMP vs. CAPM Certifications: What’s the Difference?

The strongest similarities between the PMP and CAPM certifications are that both are focused on project management and offered by PMI.

Where they differ is in the experience needed to take the exam: You can sit for the CAPM while still in college, but the PMP requires thousands of hours of project-management experience.

Here are the specific similarities and differences:

CAPM: You need either a high school degree, an associate degree or the global equivalent, plus 23 hours of formal project-management education.

PMP: You need a four-year degree, three years of experience leading projects, and either 35 hours of project-management education/training or a CAPM certification. If you don’t have a four-year degree you need either a high school diploma, an associate degree or a global equivalent, 60 months of experience leading projects, and 35 hours of project-management education/training or the CAPM certification.

CAPM: The three-hour, 150-question exam costs $225 for PMI members and $300 for nonmembers.

PMP: The four-hour, 200-question exam costs $405 for members and $555 for nonmembers, plus test-prep materials and courses.

The CAPM is good preparation for the PMP, although it’s not a requirement.

Some of Kanabar’s students have taken the CAPM. He says “it allows them to test-drive the future PMP exam. It gives them the confidence.” You need to retake the test every five years to renew your CAPM certification.

The PMP exam focuses on three areas – leadership, technology and business/strategy. The CAPM exam is more technical, with fewer questions on leadership and business strategy, Kanabar says.

How Does PMP Certification Work?

PMI will ask for documentation to prove you meet the criteria to take the PMP exam.

To show you have at least three years of project-management experience, you’ll need to provide evidence of where you’ve worked, your role and the length of the projects you supervised. Be prepared to submit academic transcripts, too.

The next step is to fill out the application following PMI’s checklist and pay a fee. PMI will review and approve your application. You have a year after your approval to take the exam, and you can take the exam three times during that span.

Once you are certified, you need to earn 60 professional development units every three years to renew it. The PDUs can be entered into PMI’s online system, and you’ll need to pay a fee.

How to Start Preparing for PMP Certification

Before you are approved to take the PMP exam, you should have an idea of what it will mean for your career and who will pay for it. If you have an employer picking up the tab, it’s an easier choice to take the exam than if you’re in between jobs and deciding whether it can fit in your budget.

Luckily, there are programs available – through government grants and private company discounts – that cover some or all of the PMP certification costs for people who are jobless.

Even if it’s clear to you that PMP certification could benefit your career, you might not be ready to handle the intense preparation to pass the exam.

PMI estimates participants need at least 35 hours of study to pass, but that time can vary greatly. If you’ve just gone back to school for a project-management certification program – which might include materials prepared by PMI – you’re likely better prepared than someone who hasn’t taken a major exam in decades.

You might feel pressure to pass the exam if you’re promised a work bonus for receiving a certification, Kanabar says. That reward could inspire you to study more.

No matter what motivates you, here are some ideal ways to prepare for the exam:

  • Create a study plan that incorporates your needs and takes into account your personal and professional commitments.
  • Get support from your employer, as your preparation might interfere with major projects – and your family.
  • Review printed materials such as the PMBOK Guide and study guides.
  • Participate in a prep course. Some are classroom-style (in-person or online) at scheduled times. Others are self-paced recorded lectures.
  • Take practice exams. Get familiar with the complex practice questions that help you plan for the most likely project-management scenarios.
  • If possible, set up regular study sessions with another person or group, which can inspire and push you during the preparation process.

Be sure to budget for prep materials and courses. Some courses are free, but others can cost as much as $2,000.

Is PMP Certification Worth It?

If you’re weighing whether a PMP certification is worth the time and expense, here are some factors to consider, broken down by career circumstance:

Currently employed: If you have a position in project management and want to advance, you will likely need a PMP certification. Even if your title doesn’t include “project management,” you might find that you will benefit from the certification.

Stonesifer earned an MBA to keep up with the requirements for her position in change management. “The PMP was the same thing,” she says. “I decided that projects was a career path I wanted to take.” She needed to have a PMP to get there.

Employed but changing careers: If you want to make an internal move to a full-time project-management role, a PMP certification will look good to a hiring manager. The best scenario is if your company puts you on the project-management career track and pays for the certification prep and exam.

Unemployed: A PMP certification can make you a much better candidate for project-management positions. If you recently lost your job, check with your previous employer’s outplacement firm to see if it will help you get a PMP. You can also look for grants through your state employment office or discounts that could help pay for the exam and prep.

Project Management Professionals Are in High Demand

It makes sense there is growing demand for project-management professionals, Kanabar says. So much is changing, and project management is a way to react to changes. “The only way to deal with it is to have a strategy that would then transform into a project,” he says.

If you’re looking for a project-management position, try to concentrate on the industries that have the strongest growth outlook for the next few years and beyond. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way many companies do business, and it’s important to understand what that might mean for project-management jobs.

PMP Certification Could Help You Land a Job

Whether you’re pursuing a project-management position within your company or trying to land an open position elsewhere, a PMP certification can help you distinguish yourself among other candidates. In other cases, a PMP might be a requirement

“Anybody who really wants to be successful in project management really needs to get that certification first, and maintain that certification,” Fritz says.

Most project-management job openings require a PMP, Stonesifer says.

“It’s a way for hiring managers to know this person has experience,” she says.

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