Project Practitioners > Better for Transition to PM: Education or Experience?

Better for Transition to PM: Education or Experience?

By Chris Cook, PMP

Transitioning into a new profession is stressful. After doing something for so long, making that adjustment comes with a learning curve that may take years or even decades to feel comfortable.

Here is a situation:

I have been an elementary school teacher for two years and want to transition into project management. After doing some research, I decided the best route would be to receive a master’s degree in project management. This general knowledge of the profession will allow me to succeed. I am thinking about applying to online programs.

This person sounds very logical. Instead of jumping right into a new profession, the teacher wants to get educated first to make that transition easier and more successful. The teacher is reaching out for advice on schools or which next steps would be most beneficial.

Some feel the best route to making the transition is education. Go back to school and learn the general knowledge to be successful. Education always looks great on a resume. Others may say to get your hands dirty. Gain experience in the field to see if that direction is what you want to do. Making connections with your peers and building your network will pay off more in the long run.

So which school of thought is right for project management?


First, let's differentiate education and knowledge. Merriam-Webster provides the following definitions:

Education – the act or process of providing with knowledge, skill, competence, or usually desirable qualities of behavior or character or of being so provided especially by a formal course of study, instruction, or training

Knowledge – the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association

This differentiation is important. Education comes from the study of a profession or field while knowledge is gained through the experience or familiarity.

Studying and learning helps people interpret information better. It broadens the horizon of the mind. You can apply different aspects of other professions to the one you are pursuing.

Project management is more than managing schedules and budgets. While those are important, people, contracts, and selling can be as vital. Without your team working on a contract to produce a product you need to sell, there is no project to manage.

Education brings about a balance of different perspectives. Not all of us can experience a day on the Amazon river or a night on the Serengeti. However, we can read about it and educate ourselves on what that experience may entail.

Earning a master’s degree in project management and obtaining the professional credential gives you the in-depth understanding of a project and all that pertains to the project manager.

For instance, the planning domain contains more processes than any other domain. Executing may seem like the most important because getting work done is the focus of so many. But, planning the project and getting everything in order should have the greatest emphasis. Priorities may get confused without education about the domain, knowledge areas, and process groups. 

Education is vital to success.

What about experience?


Experience and knowledge go hand in hand. Reading about project management and performing as a project manager are quite different.

Conflict resolution is a great example. The five categories of conflict resolution are withdraw/avoid, smooth/accommodate, compromise/reconcile, force/direct, and collaborate/problem solve. Answering this correctly on a test is fantastic. Executing these in real life is mastery.

Doesn’t everybody want a win-win situation? Collaborate/problem solve leads to that outcome. So why doesn't every conflict go this route? Because people are complicated. They have different motives. Some people go for the jugular while others want to get along.

Experience gives us those tools not seen in a book. Wrapping a towel around a hose to stop it from leaking can work just as well as finding the replacement part and using up an hour of the day to fix it.

Close enough works with experience. Sometimes a calculation is unnecessary. Guesstimates come from experience. How does that one guy always know it takes three days to perform a task when he did not even look at the plan? Because this is not his first rodeo.

Looking and guesstimating can be more useful than measuring and estimating. Time is money. Experience can save both.


This argument of education versus experience takes me back to high school biology. The teacher would hand out laminated cards identifying where the pig’s organs would be and what they look like.

Soon after, the pig was gutted doing the splits, and the insides looked nothing like the card. The card had lovely colors and clearly labeled organs with defined separations. The inside of the pig looked like a plate of spaghetti. Everything was everywhere. It all looked the same, pink.

Education gives us these clean lines with definitions and answers. Life does not always work out like the book says it does. In comes experience to save us.

Experience allows us to differentiate between the liver and kidneys of the pig. It shows us not all conflicts can be win-wins. We learn by failing and getting back up.

Tests do not always come in multiple answer formats where there is an answer. Sometimes problems come up where the answer is “let’s find out.” That answer does not work in the classroom.

The classroom gives us the opportunity to share possible solutions and fail quickly.

What is the best answer for the teacher trying to make the transition?


Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

I also did not always work as a project manager and I also went through a change process. However, I had the advantage that in my previous profession I had gone through certain training courses which were not developed to train project managers, but they made me improve leadership, evaluate situation, plan how to respond to that situation etc. and finally those courses allowed me to later take my first projects while I acquired some knowledge through self-studies and later certification as a PMP.
To me it is a combination of education and experience.
Neither one nor the other alone makes someone a (good) project manager. One may receive a lot of training/education, but in my opinion can not lead a project with it.


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