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The Online MBA in Project Management Explained

Project ManagementProjects propel businesses. Anyone who can lead entire projects, or even just phases of them, is a valuable asset to companies. Good project managers help build businesses by driving product and service development, customer service, improvements, and new initiatives -- all while keeping an eye on efficiency and employee morale.

Companies expect project managers to be adept at overseeing a team by doling out assignments, setting deadlines, staying on budget, communicating well, and creating long-term strategies and goals. When companies try to stay leaner and hire people on a per-project basis, project managers become increasingly important.

Project management is a unique beast among subjects relevant to business students. Unlike most other concentrations, it is not relegated to one industry or function. Really, anyone could use project management skills, says Jeffrey Pinto, professor of management in the online master's of project management program at Pennsylvania State University. About 65 to 70 percent of the work conducted in organizations is project based, he adds.

"Anytime a company is looking to manage change, they're setting up projects," says Pinto. "Whether your background is finance, marketing, R&D, or science, you can make use of this right now."

Those with an interest in such a career might consider pursuing an online MBA or master's in project management. Navigating your options and deciding which program will meet your unique needs is a must, though. Start with the basics:

What is the difference between an MBA and a master's in project management?

For starters, determine if an online program is right for you. Online degrees in general allow students to take courses remotely, often by utilizing an educational platform that includes live events you sign into, prerecorded lectures, assignments, chat rooms, and discussion boards. While there may be some scheduled events that students have to attend, most of these programs can be completed on your own time. In other words, you could virtually attend a class, while wearing your pajamas, at 2 a.m. in your living room. The convenience factor -- not having to give up a job or move to a new location -- is often the reason for choosing an online program over a traditional brick-and-mortar one.

Students in these programs often participate in group projects, which could mean working with teammates in multiple locations and time zones. This lends itself nicely to project management, allowing students to practice working with a diverse group of people on assignments similar to what they might experience in the real world.

MBA programs in project management include core business courses such as operations management and marketing. Commercial and procurement law, cost control, resource management, and human relations might round out the specialized courses. On the other hand, master's in project management programs offer less of the general business basics that you would find in an MBA.

Both programs tend to cater to mid-level managers. Those seeking promotion to the C-suite would probably benefit more from an MBA program, whereas those who simply want to perform better on projects would benefit from the master's, says Pinto.

Who is the right fit for these programs?

Obviously, anyone with an interest in leading teams to carry out programs and projects might be a good match for one of these degrees. This could be true of people from a diverse set of backgrounds, including engineering, finance, liberal arts, healthcare, and more. While it's not necessarily required, experience in managing teams or being responsible for an initiative at work or as a volunteer for an organization could give the school an idea of your potential and give you an idea about whether this is truly the right path.

Ultimately, your post-graduation career goals should help you determine whether to choose an MBA or master's program in project management. Although MBA programs will cover project management in electives, unless it is offered as a concentration, most of them do not focus on it as much as the master's. For example, Penn State's online MBA has students working in teams of 10 for an international business simulation and studying in cohorts of 13 throughout the program, but it is a traditional MBA with core business courses and other areas of study, says Ash Deshmukh, IMBA program chair at PSU.

The moral of the story is to reflect on your needs and what you really want to get out of your education before choosing between the MBA and master's in project management. Either way, you are going to learn about leadership and working in teams, but each has a different focus.

Project Manager

What are the admissions requirements?

Both MBA and master's in project management programs have similar requirements for admission. They expect applicants to have a certain level of work experience, usually about five years. Admissions committees typically ask for recommendation letters from superiors who have worked closely with you, transcripts from your undergraduate institutions (and any other graduate work you've done), and a statement of intent. They may not require a full-fledged essay, but they want to know your motivation for pursuing this degree now.

Finally, many programs ask for scores from a standardized test, usually either the GMAT or GRE. MBA programs tend to want these scores no matter what. The master's programs might waive test scores in some cases. PSU, for example, will waive standardized test scores if you have five or more years of experience in project management. Still, the admissions committee will look at your academic transcripts, in combination with your work experience, to ensure that you can handle the rigor of the program.

Overall, project management is becoming an important skill to have on one's resume. Project management courses have even been popping up in other graduate programs aimed at those in IT, healthcare, and other industries. Whether you choose an MBA or master's of project management program, you will be exposed to the art and intricacies of leading teams, managing budgets, setting deadlines, hiring the right people, and communicating well.