25 October, 2021

Project Management Qualification: Should you go for a PM Certification?

Of all the questions I get asked, this is one of the most frequent… ‘Should I get a Project Management qualification?’

Unfortunately, this simple question to ask is far from easy to answer. Because there are many different scenarios – each with its own answer. So, my most frequent response is:

‘It depends…’

Project Management Qualification: Should you go for a PM Certification?

In this article, I want to break down the Project Management certification question into the different scenarios. We’ll examine all the issues, to help you determine whether you should get a Project Management Qualification.

Here’s What We Will Look at…

We will break the Project Management qualification question into three components:

  1. Why Should I (or Should I not) Get a Project Management Qualification?
  2. What Project Management Qualifications are There?
  3. Which Project Management qualification Should I Get?

Before we get started, here is a discussion I had on this very topic, with Dawn Mahan. The Project Management Certification Question: Should you or shouldn’t you? And, if so, which PM certification should you go for.

PM Certification Questions Dawn and I Cover 

  • Do project management certifications matter? – and why 
  • Who needs a qualification and who they may not be right for? 
  • What about timing? 
  • Why might now be the best time to get certified? 
  • Which certification should you take?

Why Should I (or Should I not) Get a Project Management Qualification?

How should you make a decision about whether to get a Project Management qualification? And if so, which one?

The answer is simple. We have a suitable methodology as a part of our PM toolkit…

The Project Management Way: Build a Business Case

It’s all about pros and cons. Securing a Project Management qualification will take you time and cost you money. So, what are the benefits you will get in return?

Start by creating a business case.

Creating a Business Case: Our Resources

Our principal resource is our feature article, Project Business Case: How to Create the Perfect Project Proposal.

But, if you want the highlights, in video format, also check out: Project Business Case: Write an Effective Project Proposal | Video.

Content of Your Project Management Certification Business Case

Your business case needs to contain all of the costs and benefits of the certification options you are considering. And, set these against all the equivalent asssessments for the null-option of not getting a qualification.

Include in the Costs:

  • Study and course fees
  • Out-of-pocket expenses (like travel)
  • Study materials (books, videos, exam simulators)
  • A value on your time (especially if you use leave or unpaid absence to study)
  • Registration, examination, membership, and CPD fees
    (CPD: Continuing Professional Development)

Include in the Benefits:

  • Intangible benefits
    (why you want it)
  • Financial benefits
    Enhanced earning potential (supported by evidence)

Why do you want it?

There are lots of good reasons (and some not as good) for seeking a Project Management qualification. So, the first question to ask yourself is: ‘why do I want a qualification?’

Considering a #PM qualification. First question: 'why do I want it?' Share on X

Here are some common reasons, in no particular order.

Reason 1: I want the letters on my business card

There are some people who like qualifications for the sake of having them. They want letters after their name, for the perceived status and prestige. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I have to wonder: ‘so what?’

Once you have those letters, what would you do with them?

If this is you, you are probably after the most qualifications for the least effort. So, I’d recommend foundation level qualifications, like:

  • PMI’s Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)
  • APM’s Project Fundamentals Qualification (PFQ)
  • PRINCE2 Foundation
  • IAPM’s Cert. Junior Project Manager (IAPM)

These are all widely recognized entry-level Project Management qualifications. Each is a good qualification. But, because they are entry-level, the time, cost, and study requirements are lower than for their ‘senior’ partner qualifications.

However, for maximum kudos, you will want to work towards the top-tier certifications, like:

  • PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP)
  • APM’s Project Professional Qualification (PPQ)
  • PRINCE2 Practitioner
  • IAPM’s Cert. International Project Manager (IAPM)

Reason 2: I love the learning

At the other end of the spectrum, some people value the learning they’ll gain. It’s the joy of knowledge and understanding that motivates them pure and simple.

If this is you, then your choice may be tough, but the strategy is easy to articulate. Look at what each course covers and find the one that offers you the most interesting syllabus. Choose one that will take your thinking to a new level, or in a new direction. If you are a ‘traditional’ Project Manager, look at Agile for something new, or maybe M_o_R (Management of Risk) for a new depth.

Also, if this is you, you are more likely to be attracted to an academic route of a higher degree. Nothing will feed your love of learning more than that.

Reason 3: I want to be a better project manager

Ah, now here’s a reason. More pragmatic than pure love of learning, but not as ‘mercenary’ as wanting to help your career (which we’ll look at next). For you, the question to ask is: ‘What aspect of Project Management do you want to be better at?’

If it is across-the-board capabilities you are after, you are likely to want one of the high-level professional association qualifications, like PMI’s PMP, or APM’s PMQ or PPQ. In their respective communities, these are seen as a solid syllabus leading to a worthwhile professional accreditation.

If you already have one of these, or you are experienced and well-respected, then you still have plenty of choices. You are most likely to be attracted to a specific methodology that will take your practice further. In the next section, I’ve listed the Project Management qualifications Axelos offer, in a suite of project-related best practices.

Both PMI and APM have their own additional qualifications, as do the IPMA and IAPM. I have tabulated these too, in the next section.

Reason 4: I want it to help my career

Here’s where you need to do a wider spread of research. Because you are looking for a return on your investment, you need to understand more than what you get from the course, and what it costs. You need to understand your target job market.

This will depend on questions like:

Where do you plan to work?

For example, in the UK, APM qualifications may be more useful than PMI, and PRNCE2 may be of more value than elsewhere. In the US, PRINCE2 is rarely known at all, while it is well-used in Commonwealth countries like Australia, and in Gulf states. In the US and in many other countries, PMI qualifications are most widely known.

What sort of organizations? 

For example, international or US-based organizations will see the PMI’s qualifications as the gold standard, and public sector organizations are more likely to value PRINCE2 than the private sector.

What industry sector?

Once again, the public sector suggests PRINCE2 will be of value. The IT sector will be keener on Agile Project Management qualifications, but they will be of little value in construction, where traditional PMI, APM, or IAPM qualifications will be better.

Most important is to learn from recruiters. Look at company web pages and speak with recruitment consultants about their local market. Speak with people at your target employers if you can. The more market intelligence you can gain, the more robust your decision will be.

The other question to ask is this…

‘In what way do you want to help your career?’

A Jump Start

If you want to get a jump-start, you may consider an undergraduate degree that has a Project Management element to it. Post-degree, work to one of the foundation level basic qualifications:

  • PMI’s Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)
  • APM’s Project Fundamentals Qualification (PFQ)
  • IAPM’s Cert. Junior Project Manager (IAPM)
Getting a Job

In a crowded job market, a Project Management qualification can get your CV to the top of a pile (or prevent it from being ‘filed’ too soon). Some lazy recruiters set certain qualifications as an entry requirement – you need to know if this is the case.

That said, there are likely to be more Project Management jobs globally than capable Project Managers soon. And to get the best roles, experience, and track record are likely to be the biggest differentiators.

I’d suggest that, if you are aiming for a generic Project Management job, with a company’s recruitment team doing the main work on the search, then a qualification will help. But, if you are going for a particular post to deliver a specific project… Then they are more likely to be interested in relevant experience.

In a crowded job market, a #PM qualification can get your CV to the top of a pile Share on X
Getting a Promotion

Some employers do link promotions and particular salary bands or grades to qualifications. If that’s the case for you, the choice is easy. But few do. Most will promote based on capability and results. And a good Project Management qualification is only one indicator. Your track record will be far more important.

Better Pay

The professional associations claim their qualification will earn you more money. The PMPs suggest a 20 percent increaseHere is another example of an article that suggests PMP can give you a 10-20 percent salary bump. Once again, examine the market where you are (or hope to be). The statistics you see in reports are (obviously) based on statistical samples, but you are single, specific case.

What Project Management Qualifications are There?

The first question we need to address is ‘which Project Management qualification are we talking about?’ There are a lot of choices.

So, we’ll start by breaking your choice down into some major categories:

Professional Association Qualifications

The four primary professional associations are:

Each of these offers a range of core Project Management qualifications. Some also offer specific Agile Project Management certifications and some also offer certifications in specific Project Management disciplines.

Let’s look at what each one offers…

The Project Management Institute (PMI)

The PMI offers three tiers of core Project Management certification:

We have an article that compares these two qualifications, so you can assess which tier is right for you: PMP or CAPM? What You Need to Know about the Differences.

In addition, PMI offers a range of additional certifications:

  • Scheduling: PMI-SP® – PMI Scheduling Professional (PMI-SP)®
  • Risk: PMI-RMP® – PMI Risk Management Professional (PMI-RMP)®
  • Agile: PMI-ACP® – PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)®
  • Business Analysis: PMI-PBA® – PMI Professional in Business Analysis (PMI-PBA)®
  • Program Management: PgMP® – Program Management Professional (PgMP)®
  • Portfolio Management: PfMP® – Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP)®

The Associtaion for Project Management (APM)

The APM has a four-tier core professional competence qualification program:

  1. PFQ: Project Fundamentals Qualification – by examination
  2. PMQ: Project Management Qualification – by examination
  3. PPQ: Project Professional Qualification – by examination
  4. CPP: Chartered Project Professional – by application and interview

In addition, they also offer three single-subject certifications:

  • APM Project Risk Management Single Subject Certificate
  • Earned Value Management Certification
  • Project Planning & Control™

The APM is the UK member of the International Project Management Association (IPMA). This is the global professional body for project, program, and portfolio management. All of the APM’s Project Management qualifications conform to their four-tier certification system.

Finally, APM also offers International Project Management Association Level A, B, C, and D qualifications. So, let’s turn to…

The International Project Management Association (IPMA)

Do you work outside the UK or US, where the APM and PMI are not the dominant professional bodies? If so, look for a local professional body that offers IPMA standards in PM qualifications. These will then meet globally consistent standards.

The IPMA offers a four-level core Project Management Certification program:

  • A: Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A)
  • B: Certified Senior Project Manager (IPMA Level B)
  • C: Certified Project Manager (IPMA Level C)
  • D: Certified Project Management Associate (IPMA Level D)

These are IPMA’s highest internationally recognized qualifications in project, program, and portfolio management.

IPMA also offers certification in Agile Leadership

The International Association of Project Managers (IAPM)

Another international Project Management body that offers certifications is the IAPM. Their four-tier approach offers:

  • Traditional Certifications:
    • Junior Project Manager
    • Project Manager
    • Senior Project Manager
  • Agile Certifications:
    • Junior Agile Project Manager
    • Agile Project Manager
    • Senior Agile Project Manager
  • International Certification:
    • Cert. International Project Manager (IAPM)

The IAPM also offers certification for its training partners, Certified Project Management Trainer (IAPM).

First Degree Qualifications

These are Bachelors’ level degrees in Project Management. They are usually 3 or 4 years and are designed for post-18-year-old students after school. They balance an academic curriculum with practical experience, and most include Project Management in a wider curriculum: either business or a topic like construction or surveying.

It is also worth noting that many business degrees – and business-related degrees, like marketing – contain either optional or mandatory Project Management modules.

To learn more about some of the options for a Project Management degree, this Project Management Degree Guide from Discover Business contains some valuable information.

Higher Degree Qualifications

These are courses for graduates that look at project management in depth. The main options are:

  • Master’s degree
    Usually one-year full-time or longer part-time. Most are largely taught with a thesis in the final semester or term.
  • Doctoral degree
    Usually three years minimum, full-time. Longer part-time. Based on a substantial piece of original research, with teaching at the start of the program, to support. Doctoral degrees are often a route into an academic role: teaching, research, or a tenured role.

PRINCE2 and Other Specific Methodologies

PRINCE2 is the UK Government’s preferred methodology for Project Management. You’ll find that PRINCE2 is at its best in high-governance environments. And is supported by its own qualifications, at Foundation and Practitioner levels. It is designed for – and mainly used in – the public sector. Check out our article: PRINCE2 Certification: Everything You Need to Know

There is also a suite of other methodologies with their own certification programs. These are all currently owned by Axelos and administered by licensed training providers. These include:

  • PRINCE2 Agile. One level of qualification
  • MSP: Managing Successful Programmes. Three levels of qualification
  • M_o_R: Management of Risk. Two levels of qualification
  • P3O: Portfolio, Programme and Project Offices. Two levels of qualification
  • MoP: Portfolio Management. Two levels of qualification
  • MoV: Value Management. Two levels of qualification
  • ITIL: IT Service Management. Five levels of qualification

Agile Project Management Qualifications

Agile is an approach to Project Management. There are free-standing qualifications for some of the specific Agile and Agile-related methodologies, like Scrum and Lean. There are also Agile certification courses on offer from:

  • PMI: their Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)
  • Axelos: they offer PRINCE2 Agile that combines the flexibility of Agile with the rigor of PRINCE2
  • IAPM: their Cert. Agile Project Manager (IAPM) and Cert. Senior Agile Project Manager (IAPM)

Note: We have done a full breakdown of Agile Project Management qualifications in our article: Agile Certification: Your Guide to the Large Array of Agile Qualifications.

Which Project Management Qualification Should I Get?

In this section, we’ll go through the five types of qualifications and see who each one can best serve.

Professional Association Qualifications

These Project Management qualifications are best if you want a long-term career as a professional Project Manager. They give you:

  • A qualification. Letters, a label, and a status that are widely recognised
  • A solid grounding in a robust syllabus, set by experts
  • Membership of a professional body
  • Access to fellowship, knowledge networks, and research
  • Opportunities to contribute to the development of the profession and the body of knowledge
  • Bodies offer ascending series of qualifications, depending on your experience
  • Higher level qualifications have real value in the job market

But they do require:

  • A set amount of real-world experience – which for PMI’s PMP requirement is extensive
  • Considerable learning commitment
  • A cost
  • An examination – which is hard
  • Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to maintain them

The PMI’s PMP qualification is probably the strongest all-round Project Management qualification. It is demanding and robust. And it is recognized globally. But your selection of which PM Body to join should be driven by local considerations. It’s also worth noting that none are exclusive. You can always join two or more, if you wish.

First Degree Project Management Qualifications

This is ideal if you are a school-leaver or looking to retrain and have not yet had a university education. If you already know that Project Management is what you want to do, then you can look for a course that includes it.

There are relatively few first degrees with Project Management as the major focus (and in their title). But there are plenty of courses that include it in a broader curriculum.

This latter is, to my mind, an advantage. At a younger age, keeping your options open with a wider range of learning is a good thing. Research the university courses in your country, and maybe speak with a representative of your local Project Management professional association.

The advantages are:

  • A solid academic grounding
  • You should be ‘good to go’ when you hit the job market
  • Many include a placement and real work experience
  • An internationally recognized qualification

But, be aware:

  • Some academics have book knowledge but little or no project delivery experience
  • These courses rarely offer a short-cut to the professional association qualifications
  • Short Project management modules will not give you more than in introduction, and will not prepare you for real-world Project Management

Higher Degree Project Management Qualifications

These take a lot of commitment, and rarely repay their investment in salary bumps. For that, try an MBA. That said, there are some MBAs that do have a strong Project Management component. They are worth investigating.

The primary reason for taking a higher degree is the love of learning. However, a well-chosen Master’s degree can be a trigger for a promotion or an access key to a next-tier job role.

Reasons to:

  • Fabulous chance to learn
  • Opportunity to take on research that is relevant to your career aspirations
  • Chance to form a diverse network of smart people
  • Great kudos – MBA and MSc are prestigious, and a PhD, DPhil, DSc or DBA makes you a Doctor!
    (not that I can point to any tangible benefit of my PhD… But, my mother was impressed!)

And reasons not to:

  • This is a BIG commitment
  • And it may not repay the time and cost in salary and opportunity

These are all good quality Project Management qualifications. But many of them are written with a strong focus on the needs of the UK public sector. Yes, they do apply elsewhere (sector-wise and geographically). But they are less well-known and therefore likely to have a smaller impact on your career.

If you want a career that includes managing substantial UK public sector projects, you need PRINCE2. And likewise, MSP (Managing Successful Programmes) and MoP (Management of Portfolios) if you want to advance to those levels.

If you are outside of the UK public sector, these are still good courses if you want to develop your skills, but don’t expect them to necessarily have an impact on your salary.

You should if you:

  • have a lot of Project experience and Project Management knowledge. PRINCE2 builds on this and makes you think about governance
  • plan to work in the UK public sector
  • plan to work in companies that work with the UK public sector
  • work in a non-UK country where PRINCE2 is widely used and plan to work in appropriate sectors
  • can do a course and then the exam over 5 days (Practitioner level) or 3 days (Foundation level)

You should not if you:

  • don’t have a lot of Project Management Knowledge. PRINCE2 will not teach you Project Management
  • can’t stand the idea of a highly structured project governance infrastructure
  • plan to never go near the public sector as a professional Project Manager

Agile Project Management Qualifications

The PMI has started to wrap Agile into its core PMP qualification. Axelos has released PRINCE2 Agile. It’s hard to see that APM will not follow soon (but I also said this 3 years ago, in an earlier version of this article!). And PMI also has its own PMI-ACP Agile Certified Practitioner qualification.

There are other qualifications too, like the APMG-International AgilePM® certification. This is aimed at Project Managers who want to combine the flexibility of an Agile approach with more familiar project delivery approaches. It also integrates well, into a PRINCE2 project environment.

The most widely used Agile methodology is Scrum. And the most popular qualification is Certified Scrum Master (CSM). It just needs a two-day course and a 35-question multiple-choice exam.

The mood is moving. Therefore, it’s important for many project managers outside of the IT sector to learn about Agile principles and methods. Business projects increasingly make explicit use of Agile ideas.  If you are in the IT sector, it is a must.

Why you should consider an Agile qualification:

  • There are a lot of jobs in Agile Project Management
  • It will show you are moving with the times
  • There is a lot in Agile that can improve your Project Management practice
  • There are Agile methodology-specific courses that you may need, for certain jobs
  • It will enable you to select and create effective hybrid approaches to your projects

Why you need not consider an Agile qualification:

  • You work in a sector that would never use Agile methods
  • Your experience means you’ll get the jobs without it
    (although, for how long?)

What are Your Experiences or Opinions?

We’d love to hear from you. Do you have a Project Management qualification? Or have you chosen not to? What are your questions?

Please contribute below, and we’ll respond to every comment.


My thanks are due to Linda Ottmann of the International Association of Project Managers. Linda sought me out and offered to help ensure that I have properly represented the IAPM’s offerings, for which I am very grateful. If representatives of other professional associations would like to do the same, I’ll be very open to your help.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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