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Preparing for your career in project management: changing careers and returning to work

If you’re new to the project profession, or returning to work in project management after a period of absence, it can feel stressful. The good news is that coming back to work in project management or changing careers to project management isn’t a difficult process.

There can be lots of different personal and professional changes during your career journey:

  • maternity leave and parenthood
  • mental health and long-term illnesses
  • caring responsibilities
  • sabbatical
  • retirement
  • and more.

Perhaps you want to move out of a full-time corporate role into a part-time consultancy or contracting role as a specialist to focus on family. Or you’ve been working in a different industry and want to become a project professional. Perhaps you're a forces leaver, recently graduated, or you're looking to turn your informal project management role into a formal one. Managing these changes and transitions doesn’t have to be difficult. For example, some people return to work by coming back part-time and building up their hours; others take on a full-time role in a smaller organisation and learn alongside the job.

Project management is a flexible career with a breadth of opportunities that can fit in with your lifestyle and choices; once you know what your priorities are, you can tailor your project management career and training. Find out more about why you should choose to become a project professional here.

If you’re thinking about changing careers or returning to work, we’ll help you take right steps for your project management career journey. With our eight steps back to work plan and career guide below, you can learn how to get stuck into the project profession, so you can be sure you have the right project management skills and knowledge to find the most suitable role for you.

Eight steps

How do you change career to project management?

Quick tips:

  • Look for opportunities to take on project management responsibilities to expand your skills
  • Reflect on existing experience and skills you can bring from other careers e.g. people management
  • Find a mentor to guide you and network with professionals wherever you can
  • Take a qualification or training to stand out and get the basics right.

How do you handle returning to work as a project professional?

Quick tips

  • Carefully consider what options you have and where you want to be
  • Connect with peers and colleagues to catch up with what’s going on
  • Refresh your memory with project management articles, podcasts and learning resources
  • Take it slow and don’t rush to be back where you were before

Eight steps to prepare for your return to work or
a career change in project management

Step one
Explore your options and figure out what it means to be a project professional

Are you already a project manager in your current role but don’t know it? Have you missed being in the project environment after time off? Or are you curious about how to become a person who delivers change?

Whatever you answer, take time to understand what a project manager does, and which role is right for you. From managing risks to engaging with stakeholders, project managers make sure they and their team are delivering and managing projects on time, within budget and to clearly defined outcomes. 

Learn more about what a project manager does here.

Step two
Find out what project management skills you need to succeed

Perhaps you’ve got hands-on experience in project management, but you didn’t even realise – many roles use project management skills like planning and resource management. Or, maybe you feel a little rusty on some of those key concepts and competences you used to know. Don’t worry, our Competence Framework can help you work out what you need to know to be a successful project manager.

Take a look at some of the important areas of project management that you need to know about:

Step three
Keep track of what you know, and what you don’t

Once you’ve worked out what areas of project management you understand, or perhaps need more development in, log this to keep track. You may have skills and experience from your previous career that can help you in the world of projects, so reflect on what you can use to your advantage.

Keep a record of any new knowledge and training to keep yourself organised; this includes noting which areas you’ve developed or where you may need more training. Continuing your professional development is an essential part of your project management career, especially if you want to move to a different role. There are lots of ways to keep track of what you do, and our My CPD Tool can help you manage your goals and aspirations.

Step four
Network with other project professionals

You might find your next role with a simple ‘hello’. Connecting with your peers and colleagues can give you the right motivation and support to get stuck into a project management career. We can help you successfully get to work in project management when you become a member and join APM’s project management Community Platform, a safe and secure, member-only benefit that provides peer-to-peer support.

  • The return to work group
  • The career changer group
  • Mentoring services

You can also connect with peers by finding the closest APM Branch to you. And if there’s a particular topic you’re interested in or want to learn more about, get in touch with members of our Specific Interest Groups (SIGs).

Step five
Explore your options with qualifications and training

Refresh yourself and stand out as a candidate in the job market. A project management qualification can help you get to grips with the skills you need to succeed in our evolving world.  Think about which qualification is best for you, whether you’ve managed projects before, aren’t sure where you fit, or want to level up your development.

Expand your project management knowledge further with APM Learning where you can go through core project management topics to learn at your own pace:

  • Over 30 interactive training modules, including ‘choosing the right life cycle’ and ‘developing effective approaches and solutions’.
  • Project management templates, such as the ‘business case template’, as well as tools and checklists like the ‘choosing a sponsor checklist’.
  • Exclusive and bite-sized learning podcasts covering tips and frameworks you need to be agile, lead effectively and deliver better.

If you’re looking for a career change into project management, maybe you’d prefer to do an apprenticeship; working and studying at the same time. This can be especially helpful if you want to change career to project management but don’t have a lot of experience. Did you know that plenty of project management apprentices are not school or college leavers? It can be a great choice for everyone! Figure out what you want to do in your project management career so you can plan your career path in an effective and realistic way.

Step six
Keep up to date with the latest news and trends

It’s vital to stay up to date with what’s going on in the world of projects and there are lots of ways you can do this:

Step seven
Sharpen your CV and interview skills

Now that you know you want to pursue your career in project management, it’s time to sharpen your CV. Remember, your CV is one of the first things employers see, so sell yourself loudly and proudly. When writing your CV don’t just share an outline of your role – share what you achieved and your accomplishments. And remember to spell check and proofread! Take time to make it as good as it can be and check out some of our essential tips for writing a winning CV.

It’s also a good idea to practise your interview skills so you continue to show off what an asset you’ll be to the organisation. You can see our in depth tips for a successful interview here. Research the company and re-read the job description so you can gauge what sort of questions you might be asked. Interviewers usually ask competency based questions and behavioural questions to understand your level of project experience and how you are as a person. Find out what interview questions you might be asked in this blog.

Step eight
Land your dream job

It will take time to understand what role you’d like to do and find one that can suit your personal needs. We understand how important your career aspirations are and we’re here to support your journey, visit our jobs and careers page to explore more of your options in detail. Once you’ve got your head back in the game, you can start looking for your next role. Pro tip: go back to step two and make sure you’ve got the right skills!

You can find a range of different roles within project management on our dedicated career hub. Lots of recruiters use LinkedIn more than ever to share new roles and find the right candidate, so make sure your profile is optimised, expand your network and keep an eye out for that new role.

Don’t forget to continue developing your skills, network with peers and enjoy your new role as a project professional. And of course, no matter what stage of the journey you’re on, we’ll welcome you to the project community so don’t forget to become a member of APM.

With thanks to our members for reviewing and contributing to this guide.

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Career changers case studies

Katie Clara Azulay, Project Manager

Katie began in sports development, she is currently undergoing her apprenticeship in project management, due to take the Project Management Qualification.

What advice would you give to someone looking to change their career and enter project management?Katie Azulay
Don't be afraid to try something new but be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. If you’re an organised person, project management may come naturally but there is a lot more understanding to get it right. Ask to shadow a project manager. Ask within your organisation or carry out some research. There are more project managers out there than you may realise.

Where were you doing before you entered the project profession?
I have always had a passion for sports development and engaging others in physical activity and so I studied Sports Development at Bournemouth University followed by a Sports Science Masters at the University of Winchester.

I completed my university placement year with my local authority within the sports and recreation team, which led me to a full-time role. This consisted of community and stakeholder engagement with local sports clubs and athletes, engaging them to improve their abilities as well as improving subsequent facilities within the local area. My passion lay in coordinating our health walks scheme where I worked with walk leaders to run our weekly outdoor walks offering physical, social and mental wellbeing.

When did you realise you wanted to be part of the project management community?
When I realised how many faults and failures I faced during my first project management role! I am the type of person who enjoys seeing work through to the end in a positive and successful manner, however my first role didn’t give me that fulfilment. Most people at this stage would run in the opposite direction but for some reason it drew me in closer.

What did you do to move into the project profession?
I joined my local college and am still completing my apprenticeship in project management. I’m currently studying and looking to take the APM PMQ in March 2023. I was also lucky to be offered a role within the same local authority last October to project manage the development and installation of suitable alternative natural greenspaces (SANGs) across Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. I’ve been in the role for several months and am thoroughly enjoying every aspect of it so far. Every day I learn something new!

Have you taken a break from working in the project profession? How did you manage that?
When I was completing a paddling pool refurbishment project I felt completely overwhelmed and unsupported. It felt like I was thrown in at the deep end; no one around me really knew any more than I did and I was treading water. Around the same time I was also going through personal difficulties and I couldn’t face any of it.

In fact, work kept me afloat for a while, but then I started to drown in the unknowns of the project. It took a lot to realise what was happening and to ask for help; I was signed off work for six weeks by my GP and sought professional help. When I returned, I didn’t throw myself back into the project but allowed myself time to reengage at ease, even though I was the one holding all the knowledge! My colleagues were extremely supportive, and I felt in a better place to see the project through.

George Edwards, Defence Project Manager

George was an Army Officer and Town Planning Consultant before starting a career in project management.

Where were you doing before you entered the project profession?George Edwards
I was a Town Planning Consultant full-time, and an Army Officer part-time. My town planning role centred on progressing planning applications through the planning system along a linear lifecycle. My colleagues often referred to what we did as project management, when in reality, we were subject-matter-experts delivering a technical piece of work. However, this role did build transferable skills such as communication and stakeholder engagement which I was able to transfer over to project management. Luckily, my role in the Army was also largely centred on project management and leadership. So I got a good taste of what it meant to be a project manager and decided to transition to project management off the back of this experience.

When did you realise you wanted to become part of the project profession?
It was when I was delivering a project in Romania with the Army. I was leading a team of 30 people delivering a construction project. I loved the comradery of sharing a common, well-defined purpose and goal with a team. However, this was only ever a part-time role, and I was a full-time Town Planning Consultant still learning the ropes of the industry. I qualified as a chartered Town Planner in late 2019 and probably would have continued if it hadn’t been for the COVID-19 pandemic which fundamentally changed my path.

I volunteered for full-time Army service and was posted to West Wales where I was tasked with supporting Local Authorities and the NHS for six months. This experience was challenging and rewarding, and luckily, largely project focussed. I leveraged my Army project and team management experience to provide support and advice in delivering COVID-19 related projects, and I loved every minute of it. Ultimately, this period was hugely formative, allowing me to step back from my career, assess what I was doing and pivot to something I knew I loved. I secured my first professional project management role shortly after completing the deployment.

How did your previous role help you prepare for project management?
My previous role in town planning did have some transferable skills relevant to project management, such as stakeholder management, communication skills (both written and verbal) and organisational skills. These are all crucial to project management and I credit this time in my career with building these from day one. In addition to my full-time career, I’ve also been an Army Reservist since university. I was able to use many of my general military skills such as teamworking and leadership to the benefit of project management, as well as the specific project management skills I picked up in my service as a Royal Engineer.

What did you do to move into the project profession?
Firstly, I leveraged my network. I am lucky to have a few mentors from my personal and professional life who worked in project management. I used these connections for advice on how to best enter the profession, and made a five year plan for entry into the profession based on their advice. Ultimately, my aim was to transition initially into a Project Manager role because I had managed projects within the Army. I decided to play to my strengths in real estate to maximise my chance of success, so applied for a real estate project manager role.

I started in the contracting world to build my bank of experience before going over to a consultancy where I could broaden my portfolio. As such, my first role was on a fixed 10-month contract inside of IR35 where I was employed to manage short project aiming to review and optimise a Local Government organisation’s property portfolio. This was a fantastic learning experience and acted as a springboard for my project management career. I went on to work for PwC, and now work at Mott Macdonald as a Defence Project Manager where I am lucky enough to combine my interest in Defence with my passion for project management.

Mark Wemyss-Holden, Project Manager

Mark was teaching and running his own business and wanted a career that let him use the skills he developed – project management was a natural fit.

What were you doing before you stared project management?Mark Wemyss-Holden
Teaching, and running my own business on the side. This led me to choose between the two and, being entrepreneurial, I chose the business route. Having successfully launched a new product to market, I started to look to get back into a line of work that let me use the skills I’d developed as a teachers and new business owner. Project Management sort of naturally fitted, and here I am nine years later, still doing it!

When did you realise you wanted to become part of the project profession?
The realisation that at its heart, project management is about doing things properly and getting results. That’s a real motivator, and being a competitive individual, I really enjoy the challenge of an odds-laden situation. Being able to engage as a team, pulling on each other’s strengths really feels like a sport at times. You work like a team because you are one – created not by accident, but by design to achieve an objective for the greater good.

Another attractive aspect of project work is the ever-changing landscape you operate in, which can really help keep life interesting. In some industries, where status quo is the objective, I find repeating processes and procedures endlessly can become monotonous and ultimately disengaging.

How did your previous role help you prepare for project management?
I feel like teaching especially is a great grounding for a project professional. Being organised, taking responsibility for delegating and tracking progress, are all equally important across both professions. Having the ability to turn a bleak subject into something engaging and exciting, to be able to motivate your team, is a hugely important aspect of both jobs and as such, is a skill that transfers seamlessly.

Having a desire to help people progress is also a key element of project management. Having a team that wants to work for you and with you is key – again in both worlds, so I feel like having had that experience as a teacher really helps remind me that being a bossy boss just isn’t how life has to be outside of school!

What did you do to move into the project profession?
Simply put, accidental project management. My first job really wasn’t what it was billed as, and I ended up making it into my own role that allowed me to incorporate many of my existing skills and passions, while trying to learn and embed project management processes along the way.

This gave me an ideal audition for my current project management job, which I’ve found challenging, but ultimately satisfying having had many years’ experience juggling project responsibilities with other roles. As such, I feel like my additional skills give me an edge as project manager, something I’d encourage any budding project manager to consider when entering the profession. Those extra bits of value you can add to a company could be the real difference between a project succeeding or not, or you excelling in a role.

Natalie Williamson, Project Manager

Natalie worked for a Housing Association before finding the ever changing world of projects, programmes and portfolios.

What were you doing before you started project management?Natalie Williamson
Before moving into project management, I worked for a Housing Association for eight years. I had a variety of roles over that period with my last role being Business Assurance and Compliance Manager; I had responsibility for areas including strategy, policy, performance, risk, governance, internal audit and executive support.

When did you realise you wanted to become part of the project profession?
I joined Essex County Council in September 2018 as a Senior Strategy Advisor in the Corporate Strategy Team. My role was to lead on the corporate business planning process which involved working with our Performance and Delivery Teams. It was during this work I stumbled across how project/programme/portfolio management is undertaken as a profession and knew that I wanted to be part of that team!

I love to see the changes that I implement come to life. I love working with people, implementing change and taking people along with me on that journey. Projects within Essex County Council also give me the variety that I love and keeps my work interesting.

How did your previous role help you prepare for project management?
In my previous role I was lucky enough to have such a variety of responsibilities within my team that I naturally fell into the project management space; working with the subject matter experts in my team and the wider organisation to implement our annual processes as well as one-off changes.

The most important skill that helped me transition into project management was knowing how to interact and engage with stakeholders at a variety of different levels.

What did you do to move into the project profession?
Once I knew that the delivery team at Essex County Council existed I knew I needed to work there! I first engaged with the Resourcing Manager to understand more about the team, the different roles, the entry routes into the team, etc.

I was then provided a ‘buddy’ who had recently transitioned from a non-project role into the team so they could share their experiences, hints and tips! They helped me get to grips with the team and organisational processes. My line manager was also always encouraging me to develop and progress within the team.

The transition was actually a backwards move, as the entry level role into the team was as the Assistant Project Manager. However, I knew this was something I was passionate about and wanted to pursue, so when the opportunity for a 12-month secondment became available I knew I had to go for it!

Did you complete any qualifications, find a mentor, was it through an apprenticeship, etc?
Within the first six months of my secondment, I gained two qualifications which were invaluable for me to progress into a Project Management role, the ITIL 4 Foundation Qualification and the APM Project Management Qualification.

I have since gone on to complete the Managing Successful Programmes Qualification. I also had numerous training and development opportunities available to me which were in place and through our specialist Delivery Assurance Team.

Learn what it means to be a project professional

Making the move from science graduate to project manager

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.

From nappy change to business change; becoming a new mum led to a new career in project management.

At 35 I was a TV reporter. At 36 I had a baby. At 37 I embarked on a brand new career in project management with a project management apprenticeship, all whilst juggling a new family and an often-deployed spouse.  

Why choose project management?

A career as a project manager can be exciting, varied, fulfilling, and productive. The fact there is a clear start and end date means you will feel a sense of achievement on completion, with clear milestones along the way.

My unconventional career: Claire Harrison

Claire Harrison, our #futurepmgoal winner, works as a project manager for project consultancy e2x, delivering ecommerce software projects. This year, as part of the PM goal which she tweeted about, she has joined two charity groups in her local community.

Practical advice for returning to work or changing careers

How to stand out as a newly qualified project professional

Earning a project management qualification is a highly recommended first step in that journey. Here are five tips on how to shine bright once you’ve got those crucial credentials.

Five ways to get a job in project management

The demand for project professionals today is high and will continue to grow well into the future. In this blog, we’ll focus on how to get a job in project management.

How project management qualifications helped me in my career

One of my greatest wishes is that more people discuss project management as a career option – when I was at school and stuck in dreaded careers lessons, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be.

How to become a project manager

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APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition

The APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition is a foundational resource providing the concepts, functions and activities that make up professional project management. It reflects the developing profession, recognising project-based working at all levels, and across all sectors for influencers, decision makers, project professionals and their teams. 

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