A Master at Project Management

What would make a person with many years in project management, who holds a Project Management Institute (PMI)® Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential and two bachelor degrees — one in computer science and the other in mathematics — pursue his master’s degree in project management? Would that person really have something to gain from more education? Apparently, yes.

“Typically, when you think about project management, it’s budgets, schedules, metrics, and calculations,” explains Bill Mowery. “But the amount I’m learning about project management that I didn’t know is a very pleasant surprise.”

Mowery, who does oversight and governance work for a Fortune 150 company, is in his final term of an online master’s program run by The Pennsylvania State University.

A major part of his master’s education has focused on soft skills, the human side of what it takes to be a “good project manager and how project management is linked into accomplishing an organization’s goals.”

“I wish I knew this 20 years ago,” he notes. “I’d be further ahead today.”

Mowery believes he approaches work differently now than he did before going after the advanced degree. “I’ve learned how to analyze people and their interests. I think that comes back to more detailed stakeholder analysis — learning what makes people tick and tailoring my message and approach based on a better understanding of the dynamics of the project and the different types of power that exist within an organization.”

He also has a deeper appreciation, he adds, for how project management can be used as an execution tool to achieve company strategy. “How do we pull these different pieces together — resources, tools, needs and wants and desires and objectives — and sort this out into a logical sequence of work and projects to get where we want to go?”

Image of a staircase
Image illustrating a staircase

The first year of Mowery’s education, which started in fall 2009, included two courses a semester in topics such as organizations, strategy, planning and resource management, interpersonal and group behavior, and other subjects. Now he’s finishing up a research paper on the ins and outs and applications for Earned Schedule. As he explains, “I’m focused on taking some real world data and doing retrospective analysis of projects with the Earned Schedule method to see how much better it really performs compared to our existing Earned Value methods.”

To attend classes, he logs into a course management system into which his instructors have loaded reading assignments, homework, and discussion topics. He communicates with other members of his cohort through that system, most of whom, like him, live outside of the area where the university is located. When they’re working on projects together, he has also used other online tools, including GoToMeeting for online meeting collaboration, as well as email and instant messaging.

Teamwork with other students has been an important part of the program for him. “Practically every class I’ve taken requires me to collaborate with classmates,” he explains. Since the work is done virtually, that’s another aspect of the online nature of the program that has proven invaluable to him. “Those auxiliary lessons are really practical in today’s world with its global economy.”

The Price of a Master Degree

Pursuing a master’s degree isn’t inexpensive. The cost for the 2010-2011 academic year at Penn State is $912 per credit hour or a flat rate of just under $11,000 for students taking 12 or more credits per semester. (The master’s degree requires 30 credits to graduate.) On top of that are smaller fees: $65 for a graduate degree application, about $150 per course for materials and textbooks; and an IT fee of between $80 and $236 for each academic year.

Fortunately, students can use financial aid in the form of scholarships, loans, and payment plans to cover the costs.

Bill Mowery is earning his master’s degree in project management with the help of his employer. He has been able to tap a company reimbursement program to pick up at least part of the tab of his tuition. Though he offers this caveat: “Unbeknownst to many, employers will put a cap on what they’ll reimburse during a particular calendar year or for a particular program. Uncle Sam also has his limits. If you get too much reimbursement in a year, you’ll pay taxes on that just as if it were income.”

Mowery speaks highly of the caliber of the instructors, which includes lead faculty member Jeff Pinto, two-time winner of PMI’s Distinguished Service Award, author of numerous books and scientific papers on project management, and research scientist with the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis.

But student interaction has been just as worthwhile. “There’s a broad range of people in the program,” he says. “It’s interesting to hear how project management is practiced outside your own discipline. When you talk to people in healthcare and power generation, you tend to get a more holistic view of some of the commonalities of techniques and methods that are universal.”

 benefits of higher education in project management.
benefits of higher education in project management.

Ultimately, Mowery says the biggest benefit of going after his master’s degree — in spite of his immersion in project management through work — has been self-satisfaction. “I’ve really enjoyed the program. It’s been a help to shore up some of my own personal weaknesses. And it has also allowed me to help mentor people who are just coming into the field. I’ve established a lot of good relationships. Being able to help other people along the way always brings me a great degree of satisfaction.”

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Written by Dian Schaffhauser
Dian Schaffhauser is MPUG's editor. She's been covering project management, business transformation and topics technical as a journalist and editor since IBM released its first PC. She invites you to send your best story ideas for MPUG to her at editor@mpug.com. She promises to let you know what she really thinks.
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