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Making the move from science graduate to project manager

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When I started my degree in chemistry, I never thought I would find myself project managing nuclear decommissioning projects. What got me here? I discovered that what I enjoyed was applying the skills rather than the knowledge that I had taken away from my degree.

At the end of my chemistry degree, I got a place on a graduate programme in the nuclear industry. I spent the next two years moving between companies and locations to learn as much about the industry as possible. I took on a permanent role in a technical function of the business, focusing on the disposability of nuclear waste. A large part of my role was working with projects that would be delivering the engineering capability to retrieve and process the waste.

It was this insight into projects that made me realise how much I enjoyed seeing the delivery of work on sites and taking on new challenges. I felt a real buzz from working with a team consisting of lots of disciplines. This was the point I decided a technical role wasn’t for me and looked into opportunities to move into the project management profession.

If you too are considering a move into project management, here are my top tips to help you on your way:

  1. Look for opportunities (outside of the lab)

There are lots of opportunities to take on project management responsibilities that don’t necessarily require a direct move into a project manager’s role and may even be possible alongside your current role. Keep a lookout for opportunities within your team or function and speak to an existing project or programme manager to understand how and where you might be able to develop project management skills.

  1. Make everything a project

Just because you’re in a technical role, doesn’t mean you can’t project manage it. Using Gantt charts, forecasting costs and identifying risks to the work you are doing are all useful examples of project management skills. Even activities outside of work for a club or community group may require project management. Consider the skills you are already using and how they might apply to project management and how you could use them in an application or interview.

  1. Tap into your existing skillset

My degree certainly prepared me for this role, not the subject-specific knowledge, but in other ways. From being able to problem solve, to learning concepts quickly, taking on board new information and asking the right questions all stem from my science background. And the soft skills of working with a team of people, building good relationships, and communicating effectively are all transferable skills that are essential to a project management role. The skill set of a science graduate is hugely transferable and when thought about in the context of project management can tick lots of the required competences.

  1. Learn new skills

Once I had started on my project management journey, I decided to complete the APM PMQ to develop my project management specific skillset and demonstrate my competence. This was a great way to further underpin my new skills in project management and to formally demonstrate them with a recognised certificate. There are a range of project management qualifications available from APM that can support your development and demonstrate skills at all levels of the profession, so it’s worth investigating to determine the right one.

  1. Find a mentor

Mentors can be useful at any stage of your career, I found it particularly useful during the transition from a technical role to one in project management. It is also helpful to have people you can go to with day-to-day challenges, this is likely to be someone within your organisation who understands the processes and procedures and stakeholders you will be working with. Also, for career development purposes and considering what the next step might be, or how to approach your chartership application a mentor can prove invaluable. Finding a mentor either internally in your business, or through APM can be hugely beneficial.

What I have learned is that what you’re good at and what you enjoy may well be two different things, and that’s okay. I was good at chemistry, but when the experience and opportunity presented itself, I realised what I enjoyed was applying the skills I had from my degree to solve problems outside of the lab, and that ultimately projects could give me the challenge I wanted from a job and probably always will.

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