How well does PM program curriculum prepare students for the job?

by Sylvie Edwards

I have been involved with project management education for over 20 years, and it was not until about six years ago, when I developed the curriculum for our local College PM certification program, that I realized that we can’t teach certain aspects of project management to everyone. There is no mold to generate perfect PMs.

At this time of year, as my classes are done and a new set of graduates get ready to accept their diplomas, I am wondering if we’ve really taught them everything to be ready for the work environment they are about to enter.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that we have covered all the basics that you would expect to find in a good project management program. We’ve shown them what and how to create a charter, reviewed the need for a well-defined Work Breakdown Structure, and used software to build a schedule. By the time they leave our 8-month program, they’ve read the PMBOK® Guide from cover to cover, done countless exercises on risk management, quality management, procurement, and requirements gathering. This is not even mentioning the amount of time they’ve spent in group settings hashing out what a product, service, or deliverable was going to look like to meet some stakeholders’ needs.

We, as instructors, do a great job at sharing our knowledge and expertise with these students whom for the most part are eager to learn, develop marketable skills to bring them close to a valuable work position.

I do believe that there are still areas of knowledge and skills or competency that are not truly being transferred seamlessly or that are not being picked up easily by the students, which is a concern.

Colleges and Universities all over the world have for so long been providers of theories and have developed more recently into varied approaches of application of these theories. It has been clear for some time that a learner is more likely to do better if they are able to apply, work constructively with their newly acquired knowledge. Application-based learning is all the rage.

When it comes to project management, there are areas of application which we should target a bit more but that are not that clear cut to deliver in a classroom setting. Let’s discuss three (3) valuable skills for a PM and the issue of teaching them.

Decision making

Yes, a good PM needs to make decisions on a daily basis. Decision-making consistently comes up as one of the top 10 key required skills.

One problem, how do you teach decision-making?

Evaluating is the easy part, but short of putting the student in the context where they can make decisions, it is quite hard to teach someone to make decisions. You can review some decision models or frameworks that can be applied for consistency to case studies but truly making a decision within the same context as one will in the field, under stress with the interactions of stakeholders at every turn, is quite a different thing.

Critical thinking

Related to decision making, critical thinking comes up often as essential to a PM role but what does it actually mean? More importantly, can we teach it effectively?

So, first, for a short definition, critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgment. In education, one does go about sourcing out a lot of data, and the same can be said about any project manager. Again here, the issue does not revolve around how but if it can be taught?

I have seen consistently in this area, students, when provided with large amounts of data, do not really know how to objectively analyze the set and furthermore do not understand how to interpret what that data could suggest.


Now this one is my favorite one. When asked to generate a professional-looking report or presentation students will come up with various levels of understanding of what makes something professional in looks and feel. To my knowledge, it should never involve 28 different colored fonts or cartoons of a favorite superhero. The definition of professionalism is very wide and contains a large number of elements. At its core, professional behavior is necessary for long-term success in a business setting, and it is vital to ensuring a company’s success in achieving its objectives.

How do you go about teaching this to someone? What aspects do you focus on? Is it about ethics or accountability? For some, it’s about the dress code, employee interactions, and conduct. Again, to my point, most instructors can provide guidance but teaching it as a subject is a far more intense endeavor. Teaching almost always results in having to grade or evaluate as well, and for this, you need a basis of common understanding.

One thing, which all the above skills have in common, is the fact that we don’t have one single model that works in every situation. A person needs to understand and be flexible in applying the skill to the situation. That is what we cannot teach, context flexibility (I call it).

With these three topics, I have just begun to scratch the surface, and I can contend that there are a great number of other skills or competencies that will easily fall into this “hard to teach” category for project management.

At the end of the day, the question remains: Are we really preparing our students to be great PMs?

You decide I have my doubts.


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