The Project Manager career path has more options. But it requires more knowledge and skills.
The Scrum Master career path is easier to enter. And it heavily focuses on soft skills.
Which journey should you choose?
What career will make you happy?
Let’s review the pros and cons of Project Manager vs Scrum Master.
Project Manager Career Path
(watch the video as it has more visual explanations)
There’s one big benefit in the career of a project manager.
You get experience in project management and leadership. And the wide variety of career options appear before you.
So, let’s talk about the project manager’s career path.
I’ll explain to you the main points that you should be aware of at each stage.
Let’s dive in.
The career of a Project Manager: Entry-Level
Do you know what’s the most challenging part of the whole career of a project manager?
It’s getting your first project management role.
You see it’s not enough to have an education or talents and skills to become a PM.
- Because a lot of human interactions and relationships are in the heart of any project.
- You an opportunity to show your capabilities as a leader.
- Someone needs to entrust you people, and the resources and reputation of a company for the first time.
It’s much easier to become a project manager in a company that you already work in. There, you already have some relationships with your leadership.
Entry Points to the Career of a PM
- Assistant project manager
- Project coordinator
- Junior Project Manager
In general, there are two major entry points for you.
You go into the companies with already established project management approach.
Or you go into smaller companies that do some sort of projects.
[Statistics show that there are only about 11% of companies with an established PM approach]
Usually, bigger companies and enterprises do have such roles as an assistant project manager, and the project coordinator.
Yes, the entry-level salaries in these companies are a bit higher. But likewise, the requirements to a project manager are higher too.
Therefore, even an entry-level project manager might need some level of experience and certifications. For example CAPM, which stands for Certified Associate in Project Management.
How to Get Your First Project Management Role
But I strongly believe that:
It’s much easier to get into a small company, get a leadership position and build up from there.
I think you’ll be able to level up your salary to the salary of a big company much faster. Moreover, you won’t waste time getting all the certifications and extensive experience. You’ll need those before you land the job opportunity of your dream.
So, find a small company that does projects. Get a job there. After that, state your desire to become a project manager there from day number one.
You’ll stay on the junior PM level for about six to 18 months.
It strongly depends on your ability to finish projects successfully, to understand the project management, and to show that you are capable of leading projects on your own.
Truth About Career Levels of a Project Manager
Keep in mind that these roles junior, senior, or mid-level Project Manager are not standardized.
Each company has its own understanding of what it means. Some companies have higher standards, some lower standards.
So, it’s wise to change the organization you work in after one or two years especially at the beginning of your career.
It’ll give you better salaries and the ability to gain experience in a new environment. It’s crucial!
Again at some point, you will prove yourself reliable.
You will prove that you can lead projects on your own without any supervision.
That’s actually the mid-level for project managers.
Project Manager’s Career on Middle Level
Here your main goal is to get experience and finish most of your projects successfully.
You may spend about three to five years here. It depends on the organization and the kind of projects that you do.
Once you have three or more years of practical experience, I do recommend you getting the Project Management Professional certification which is the PMP.
This certification will help you to systemize your experience and get the required knowledge to run bigger projects, and soon you will get to that senior level.
As you can see I suggest you getting the certification only after you have a lot of years of experience.
Nowadays people try to get the PMP certification without ever trying to lead people or run a project.
But you don’t need any certifications to run smaller projects in smaller companies.
However, if you can get sponsorship from the company to get any kind of certifications or trainings, do use it as much as possible.
Senior Project Manager Career Options
All right now you get to the senior PM level!
At this level, you usually run high impact projects, or you help other project managers to run their smaller projects.
You become a senior project manager when you have more experience and knowledge than the average project manager in your company.
Starting from this point your professional development isn’t measured by years of experience or certifications that you have. It’s about the value you create for the organization you work in.
- You can share your experience
- You can run projects that no other project managers can finish successfully
- You can help other project managers to finish their projects successfully
Therefore the more value you bring to the company, the better your chances to move further the career path.
From here, the career path of a project manager can branch out into different directions.
1. Project Management Career Path
The direct path is to move higher project management level. You can get into the role of a program manager.
From Project Manager to Program Manager
A program manager leads a group of projects that pursue one goal.
So, now you will be managing other project managers.
And you will ensure that they collaborate with one another to finish all the projects and reach a common goal.
Quite possible to do that you will need to get the Program Management Professional from PMI. That will give you the required knowledge, and skills to manage programs because it’s a bit different from running projects.
From Program Manager to Portfolio Manager
A portfolio manager manages programs and projects.
As a portfolio manager, you start to move from project management to actually business management.
You get the authority to select projects that you think are suitable to pursue the strategic goals of an organization.
Therefore, you will need additional education in business management.
So, you might need to get an MBA or something similar. Likewise, you may try to get the Portfolio Management Professional from PMI.
From Portfolio Manager to CEO
And with the experience in portfolio management, you might try to get into the executive level, and become the CEO of a company.
2. Project Management Office Career Option
From the senior project management level, you may want to dive deeper into project management.
So, if you want to remain in the project management landscape, you need to look into the project management office.
In big companies, it’s a separate department that helps to improve the culture of project management in the organization.
Here you have an opportunity to apply your project management skills and knowledge to have an impact across all the projects in this company.
Keep in mind that you need to find a bigger company to work in because this PMO needs to have enough authority and functions for you to develop as a professional project manager.
There is also another direction that you can take from the senior PM level.
3. Other Project Management Career Options
You can become a project management consultant, auditor, or some kind of a trainer.
So, here you will help other companies to establish their project management, or you will try to improve it on a one-time basis.
Likewise, they may contract you to do some high impact projects that they don’t have enough expertise to manage within house resources. OR they may ask you to rescue a critical project to save their company, business or some endeavor.
It’s more of an entrepreneurial direction for a project manager, and this is the direction that I chose.
I help people to become a project manager. I have an online course that helps anyone to become a PM from any role.
Now let’s talk about the career path of a Scrum Master
Scrum Master Career Path
First of all, yes, Scrum master is a standalone profession.
You can build a whole career as a Scrum master.
On an entry-level, you are a Scrum master for only one team.
After you get some experience and you become more proficient, more productive, you can take several Scrum teams and facilitate the work on different projects.
You will also learn how to collaborate with other Scrum masters and to integrate the work of different Scrum teams into one product.
Next Step: Scrum Coach
After you get to experience as a Scrum master and you will feel like you want to share your experience you can become a Scrum Coach.
Sure you will need some additional training and certifications and a proven track record of your work as a Scrum master.
After Scrum Coach, there are several other options that you can try to pursue.
For example, if you want to have more impact on the product, you can become a product owner.
But it’s a questionable direction.
It may work out in a company that creates its own product and you can become a product owner there. But if you work in a vendor company and you provide services to your clients, most likely your clients or someone on their side will be the product owner.
So your options here are limited.
The Best Career Path: Agile Project Manager
Likewise, it’s common that you become an Agile Project Manager.
You learn the project management and you combine it with your skills and experience as a Scrum master.
Compare it with the project manager’s career path.
There are different levels of a project manager:
You can be a junior, a mid-level, or a senior PM. Then you can develop into a program manager, a portfolio manager, and a CEO of a company.
You can also branch out from the mid-level or senior-level into the project management office, or you can become a project management consultant or a trainer.
Now let’s discuss the career of a Scrum master in terms of job opportunities and professional growth.
Career Options of a Scrum Master
On the bright side, it’s quite easy to get the certifications and meet all the requirements to become a Scrum master.
Usually, you need to take a two-day training and pass a simple exam.
That makes you a certified Scrum master!
In comparison to an entry-level certification for a project manager that will be much easier and cheaper.
Now let’s talk about the adoption of Scrum framework in different industries.
You need to understand that Scrum is widely adopted only in the Software and IT industry.
You may find job opportunities of a Scrum Master in the marketing industry or event management industry or in rare cases in some other industries but that’s all.
So depending on your education skills and previous experience it might be challenging to get into these industries where Scrum is widely adopted. If you really want to build a career as a Scrum master you do need to get into the IT industry.
But there is also another challenge:
Not that many companies are really fully agile. So yes, they do projects using Scrum or Kanban but in all other aspects, they are plan-driven.
You’ll see this even in the IT industry and software development industry.
Your career development options in one organization will be limited. You may need to change companies quite often.
And keep this in mind:
If you pursue the role of a project manager from the start, you can easily adopt the role of a Scrum Master. But if you start as a Scrum master it will be challenging to get all those knowledge and experience of a project manager.
Now let’s take a look from another perspective on the career of a Scrum master.
Career Development of a Scrum Master
Let’s talk about self-esteem and satisfaction from the work as a Scrum master.
I want you to think about the role of a Scrum Master or a Project Manager in the long term.
Let’s say you will be in one capacity for five or seven years.
Will you be motivated to pursue the same responsibilities year after year?
And here’s what I want you to understand:
Both these career paths are limited by the frameworks that you will be using.
Scrum has a lot of prescriptions in terms of the roles and responsibilities of the team. There is no variation in terms of tools and processes that you can use.
So day after day, iteration after iteration you will be doing one and the same thing.
A Scrum Master Focuses on Soft Skills
If you want to be a great Scrum master you should follow the prescribed recommendations.
First of all, you should be a facilitator.
You should not impact the decisions of your project team or the product owner. Your main goal is to help others to use the Scrum framework.
You will have little impact on the product that you are developing.
You will not be able to make a lot of changes to the Scrum framework.
You won’t take the responsibility for the decisions that you make.
Agile Transformation on Company Level is a Myth
I know you might be thinking about one lucrative responsibility of a Scrum Master.
You may think that you will be helping your company to adopt Scrum on the organizational level and transform it into an agile company.
But in reality, as a single Scrum master or even a Scrum coach, you don’t have the authority to make these changes.
You may teach your leadership and other stakeholders in the company the ways of Scrum and Agile. However, you won’t have the authority to make an impact on the company as a whole.
There is an option that you will be hired to do this Agile transformation and you will get the support of the leadership of the company.
But it’s a rare case and I don’t recommend you put all your expectations on the career of a Scrum master just for that opportunity.
In comparison, a project manager has a bigger influence on how to manage a project. You can choose the processes, tools, and techniques that you will use on your project.
But to be totally honest, a project manager is also limited by the policies of the company and the frameworks that it uses.
On the other hand, there are many more opportunities for one time projects where you can be a master of your decisions. You can select anything that you deem necessary to finish a project successfully.
Scrum Master vs Project Manager: Conclusion
So if your intrinsic motivation lies in helping others as a servant leader, then the Scrum Master role is for you.
Do ask yourself if this motivation alone will last for years. If the answer is yes, a Scrum Master career path is for you for sure.
But if you want:
- To see a direct impact on the product that you are developing,
- To have control over how to manage a project,
- To work on a bigger scale.
You need to take the Project Manager career path!
Always keep in mind that you can combine both roles and become an Agile project manager but still you need to start as a PM.
Hi, very helpful article.
I researched a little bit.
Why is there a big difference in salaries of a Scrum Master & Agile PM? Agile PM salaries seem to be much lesser.
Dmitriy Nizhebetskiy says
Uzma, thanks for your comment. I can’t agree with that statement. Project Managers earn more than Scrum Masters.
It might be hard to compare because Scrum Masters usually don’t have different levels. Under the job title “Project Manager” you can get jobs for Junior and Senior PM.
Scrum Master is a standardized role while a project manager may have a wide variety of responsibilities.
So, you need to compare the responsibilities and required years of experience. Also, I would consider the earning potential as well.
Very interesting article. I wanted to become Project Manager so I decided to take a Master in Project Management (even I obtained PMP), but in my current company I have no place for such a role so I applied for a Scrum Master position (during my master I also took the certification). However, after 6 months being Scrum Master I find my role a bit limiting as I only focus in my team facilitating and with no real impact to the organization. Maybe I should reconsider again becoming an Agile Project Manager. Any recomendations? (if they were based in Spanish market, that would be awesome, but that would be a miracle XD)
Dmitriy Nizhebetskiy says
Yes, Miguel, Scrum Master is quite a limited role. Agile Project Manager, Delivery Manager, Technical Project Manager are broader in the IT industry. You’ll still act as a Scrum Master. But in addition to that, you’ll manage activities that are beyond your Scrum Team.
So, try switching to a PM role.