The Comprehensive Guide to Project Management Certifications

The Comprehensive Guide to Project Management Certifications

Jeff Alhadeff Project Management 5 Comments

Have you heard the terms PMP, PRINCE2, CSM, Six Sigma, or ITIL, and it just sounds like a bunch of alphabet soup? If yes, this comprehensive guide to project management certifications is for you.

Whether you’re a job a seeker or director of HR, this comprehensive guide will help you understand the different approaches to project management.

Ultimately, there’s no single right or wrong methodology for managing projects. But it is essential that the right approach be selected for the organization and task at hand.

About This Guide to Project Management Certifications

Based on research and interviews on project management, this guide clarifies where each approach works well, drawbacks to consider, popular software tools, and the training investments required.

After reading this guide, you’ll be armed with the information you need to make your next move.

Heads up!

  • This is not an academic breakdown of project management.
  • This guide to project management certifications will introduce you to the most popular project management methodologies.
  • Keep in mind that many organizations use a combination of methodologies.
  • Yes, we know that Six Sigma and ITIL are not project management methodologies per se. But, for this guide, if you’re managing people and resources with the goal of adding value to a business, we’re calling that “project management.”

If you’d like, you can jump to:

PMP: Project Management Professional

The framework in a nutshell

Wrike, provider of project management tools, identify five stages to a project being managed using PMI’s Project Management Book of Knowledge, known as the PMBOK:

  • Initiating: Includes processes such as developing the project charter, identifying stakeholders, and controlling stakeholder engagement.
  • Planning: Everything having to do with planning, such as determining the budget, creating the WBS (Work Breakdown Structure), and defining scope.
  • Executing: Processes involved with executing the project plan, including managing communications, conducting procurements, and managing the project team.
  • Controlling: Processes that track and oversee progress, including those that control scope, cost, and quality.
  • Closing: Everything necessary to complete a project, such as closing a project phase or closing procurements.

These five steps would be applied at every project.

Day in and day out as a PMP

You are the point person, or as Abraham B. (PMP) put it, ‘You’re the glue that holds the project together’.

In IT, the PMP who has plenty of background IT experience will be expected to liaise between his technical team and upper management who may have less technical understanding than the PMP and his team.

A project manager with PMP should expect to spend the vast majority of their time (upwards of 75-90%) communicating. That includes meetings, writing memos, reading and preparing reports, and talking with project team members, upper management, and all other stakeholders. In the words of Max Wideman as:

In short, without communication no one knows what to do, without motivated people there is no one to do anything, and without planning, no one gets anything done. So there you have it, the three most important project manager skills: Planning, Persuading and Promulgating (communication).

As the person accountable for a project’s success or failure, it only makes sense that you act as the communications hub.

One of the main benefits for project managers to train and certify as PMP is learning to effectively communicate using PMBOK terminology, and best practices.  

I think that project management software

is such an individual choice that you need to pick what works best for you, your working preferences and your project environment.

Elizabeth Harrin, A Girl's Guide to Project Management

Expect to use these (or similar) software tools as a PMP

Like Elizabeth said, software is an individual choice. Of course, you could use a paper and pen too. But, most likely if you work as a PMP you’ll use one, or some, of the following to help keep teams on task. Hopefully this gives you a sense of the day to day of a PMP. (I’ll follow this approach throughout this guide to project management).

  • Microsoft Excel – Not an ideal tool for a PMP but still widely used to keep track of who is doing what.
  • Smartsheet – A highly customizable cloud based management tool.  Since SmartSheet is versatile, it can be used with any of the approaches to project management.
  • Microsoft Project – This is the mainstay of project management.  Ideal for complex projects.
  • LiquidPlanner – Provides ‘predictive project management software’.  It includes a ‘scheduling engine’ to help teams identify what they should be working on next and keeps everyone up to date.
  • OmniPlan – Helps identify when your project will be completed.
  • TeamGantt– Provides charts, task management, communication and document sharing all in one place.  
  • Wrike– also listed below under ITIL.  Their software set is robust and helps for a simplify a variety of project management tasks.

While difficult to achieve, the rewards for PMP

credential holders can be significant. According to the PMI Salary Survey, Eighth Edition, PMPs in the United States earn an average of almost 17 percent more than their non-credentialed counterparts. Median salaries of PMPs in the United States were reported at $110,000 compared to $91,500 for non-PMP certified project managers.
Ed Tittel, Mary KyleBest Project Management Certifications For 2016

Things to know before working as a PMP

The PMP is most commonly aligned with the ‘Waterfall’ methodology. This method spends a lot of time planning out every detail from the start, and then following that plan until a project closes. As such, PMP is great for very regulated industries, like manufacturing, construction, and finance, or other fields that follow the waterfall methodology.

On the personal level, David Mitchell, Director of Operations for Keep Learning Forward commented:

I have found that being successful in project management that you need to be comfortable or at least able to deal with conflict. In project management we deal with people, deadlines, and money. All of the items listed lead to conflict and stress filled situations. If you are unable to handle conflict then you will not be very good at your position. You can be great at everything else, but will always fall short if you can not handle difficult and uncomfortable situations.

You can imagine why those who do perform well in these scenarios are in demand, and enjoy their work.  

By the way, Mitchell’s insight applies to most of the project manager disciplines, not just the PMP.  But, in the other disciplines there tend to be more of a team approach to specific projects.  You’re not the point person needing to resolve every issue, keeping everyone moving on track, or explaining why a project is behind schedule.

Creating realistic project plans,

estimating time and effort, rocking a spreadsheet your own way… those are all things you MUST do as a good project manager, and those skills are easily learned. In fact, there are some great programs and instructors who teach and certify those skills. But, central to the role is the skill to keep your work organized and your teams informed and happy.
TeamGantt, provider of online project management software

How to get PMP certification

PMI lists the following as prerequisites:


  • Secondary degree (high school diploma, associate’s degree or the global equivalent)
  • 7,500 hours leading and directing projects (3-4 years full time)
  • 35 hours of project management education


  • Four-year degree
  • 4,500 hours leading and directing projects (2-3 years full time)
  • 35 hours of project management education

You can earn your 35 hours of project management education by taking a class from an instructor, or enrolling in an online PMP course and practice exam such as the one offered by Boost eLeaning.

Maintaining your PMP certification

To maintain your PMP, you must earn 60 professional development units (PDUs) in project management topics every three years.

How much does it cost

You’ll need to pay PMI to take the certification exam.  They charge members U.S. $405 and non-members U.S. $555.  Cost of membership is U.S. $129.

Costs of getting your PMP education can range from several thousand dollars if you attend a university class, to just a few hundred dollars with online learning.

How much time to prepare

If you already have the prerequisites, studying for the PMP should take at least 40 hours.

PRINCE2: PRojects IN Controlled Environments

The framework in a nutshell

PRINCE2 is a certification provided by Axelos, and is popular in the UK, especially the public sector.

The PRINCE2 provides a step-by-step process for a project manager to follow while planning and managing a project.  PRINCE2 is a project management methodology traditionally used for waterfall type projects.  In this way, it is similar to PMP: they are the only two certifications listed in this guide to project management certifications that are used with waterfall.

It focuses on:

  • Business justification
  • Defined organization structure for the project management team
  • Product-based planning approach
  • Emphasis on dividing the project into manageable and controllable stages
  • Flexibility that can be applied at a level appropriate to the project.

Day in and day out as a PRINCE2

  • PRINCE2 is a prescriptive methodology.  The system clearly guides you on what you are to do at each step of the project’s process.
  • Project Performance International writes “PRINCE2 provides a more prescriptive (although flexible) set of steps for the project manager and teams to follow.”
  • PRINCE2 can work well with other approaches, so be open to mixing and matching approaches to project management to adapt to the needs of your team.

Expect to use these (or similar) software tools as a PRINCE2

Many of the software tools described for use with the PMP would work well with PRINCE2 as well.

Things to know before working as a PRINCE2

PRINCE2 is best used in organizations that want to see standardization across their projects. The standardized language and templated processes can be a welcomed advantage when it comes to managing corporate or government programs, training, and tracking systems consistently across an organization.

Although the PRINCE2 process can be adapted widely to almost any level of complexity, the PRINCE2 does not equip project managers with tools and techniques that a project manager acquires through the PMP certification, based on the PMBOK.

The PRINCE2 does not address interpersonal skills, attitudes, motivation, and other fundamental aspects of what makes a project successfully managed. Some have voiced support for complimenting PRINCE2’s templated process with other project management methodologies, such as PMBOK (see PMP above).

How to become PRINCE2 Certified

PRINCE2 certifications come in two flavors, the PRINCE2 Foundations and the PRINCE2 Practitioner.  Each certification has a certain number of professional development units required, and the exams are somewhat different.  For more information, please see PRINCE2 Examination Format.

For training, several in-person sessions are available, or you may prefer our online PRINCE2 Foundations course or PRINCE2 Practitioner course.

Maintaining your PRINCE2 Certification

  • PRINCE2 Foundations does not require any maintenance.  
  • PRINCE2 Practitioner is valid for five years.  To maintain it, you must pass a renewal/re-registration exam once every 3-5 years from your initial or previous Practitioner certification.

How much does it cost

Exams are offered through PeopleCert.  Please see their page for more information.

How much time to prepare

CSM: Certified Scrum Master

The framework in a nutshell

The Certified Scrum Master (CSM) is a certification given by the Scrum Alliance.  The Scrum Master is the person who leads the team meetings.

Scrum is part of the Agile methodology for software development.  Instead of the linear plan-and-execute process in the Waterfall framework, Agile uses an iterative develop-and-release process.  At the end of each iteration, the plan is reevaluated, and the next iteration begins.  

The team at Yanado described the benefit of Agile:

The greatest value of Agile project management is how it brings fresh working software frequently, with short waiting periods. You have continually functional software from the early days of your project, and your job is only to help it evolve and meet its full potential – that which the client ordered.

The Agile manifesto is as follows:

Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
Working software over Comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
Responding to change over Following a plan

Scrum is not the only method of Agile software development, but it’s certainly one of the most popular ones.

Key terms in Scrum are:

  • Sprints – meetings at regular intervals to decide which features should be built next
  • Scrum Master – the person who leads the meetings
  • Product Owner – the person who speaks on behalf of the customer
  • User Stories – a way of describing a new feature
  • Team Members – the developers
  • Stand Up Meetings – short daily meetings where team members share their status

At the start of each sprint, the Scrum Master, Product Owner, and developers meet to decide which users stories should be accepted to be developed during the next sprint.  Status is shared at daily stand-up meetings.

As companies seek to deliver more

for less, many are adopting agile methodologies as a way to streamline processes, build quality into products and ensure that the final build meets customer requirements. As the use of agile methodologies has become more pervasive and popular, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing an increased demand for IT practitioners uniquely qualified to manage projects in agile environments.

Ed Tittel, Mary Kyle, Toms IT Pro

Day in and day out as a Scrum Master

The Scrum Master has the role of a Servant Leader.  As defined by Ian Mitchell writing in DZone,

A Servant Leader manages a team not by telling them what to do, but by removing impediments that get in their way and by coaching them in agile best practices. It can be thought of as a type of stewardship.

Day in and day out, a Scrum Master does many of the following leadership activities:

  • Shield the team from diversions and distractions
  • Facilitate planning sessions
  • Facilitate reviews and retrospectives
  • Coach the team in agile best practices
  • Help the team to collaborate better
  • Advocate the team’s position
  • Anticipate
  • Find ways to remove team impediments
  • Make sure daily stand-ups happen, and are conducted properly
  • Encourage transparency and associated metrics
  • Understand and explain the team’s progress to interested stakeholders
  • Arbitrate between team members when necessary

Expect to use these (or similar) software tools as a Scrum Master

There are endless numbers of Scrum software tools available.  Here are just some of them to give you a flavor of what the job is like:

  • iDoneThis – Avoid needless meetings.  iDoneThis sends an email to each team member.  They reply with what they accomplished that day.  Their results are organized for everyone to see.  iDoneThis helps provide the benefit of stand up meetings because you get to hear what is getting done and what’s not.  
  • Pivotal Tracker – Log each user story and have your team estimate how many points the story is worth to its relative complexity.  Overtime, your team will determine a cadence as to how many points get completed within each sprint and PivotalTracker can predict when you anticipate having your project completed, solving one of the difficulties of Agile development.  There are numerous features to organize, assign, and accept different work projects.  Recently PivotalTracker added new Analytics features. They provide an unprecedented level of insight into the health and status of your projects.
  • Asana – A deceivingly simple way of tracking user stories and helping teams get work done.  Allows you to view and assign projects to a specific due date and view tasks on the calendar.
  • Trello – Let’s you create visual cards to form lists of things to do, share with your team, comment, and mark as completed.

Things to know before working as a Scrum Master

Scrum focuses on people and interactions as being more important than process.  At times, teams may deviate too far afield from the Scrum methodology; you’ll need to pull them back.

At times, upper management will ask you  “When is the whole project going to be done?”  You’ll need to feel comfortable explaining the difficulty in predicting when a  large project will be finished.  (Tools like PivotalTracker can help).

Nella Groysman, Sr. Project Manager, at Northwestern Mutual notes that the biggest obstacle for companies, “is that they jump into that methodology without adjusting their budgeting system from ‘per project’ to ‘value stream’….  This approach puts project managers in the conundrum of having to manufacture these deliverables without having any idea of the scope and priorities of the project, since these are developed and sometimes changed during the project itself.”

How to become a Certified Scrum Master

Maintaining your Certified Scrum Master status

As of February 14, 2016, Scrum Alliance does not currently require continuing education to maintain your CSM certification.  But, their website states “More information regarding certification renewals will be coming from our education team in 2016, so stay tuned!”

The two-year renewal fee is $100 USD.

We need to set

the expectation that the CSM, PSM, or equivalent credentials are only the beginning of a path and the ScrumMasters need to earn that role with ongoing coaching, mentoring, and raw experience.

How much does it cost

The two day on site classes can run anywhere from $800 USD to $2,000 USD depending on location and when you book your course.

The Scrum Materials to prepare on your own are free.  Our Certified Scrum Master course is $280 USD.

How much time to prepare

Two days on site training, plus the amount of time you spend preparing. Our CSM course will take about 5 hours to complete.

Six Sigma

The framework in a nutshell

Six Sigma is a data-driven methodology focusing on process optimization.

In some ways, it doesn’t belong in a guide to project management certifications. However, since it does relate to managing people and events, I decided to include it.

The name Six Sigma refers to the goal of achieving six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit in a given process.

Though it originates in manufacturing, today, Six Sigma is widely used in both manufacturing and transactions, and both products and services.

The term Six Sigma was trademarked in 1991.  Today, the International Association of Six Sigma Certification,  IASSC, is one of the main organizations responsible for confirming the Six Sigma certification.  They are the only independent third-party certifier that does not sell their own line of training toward their own certification.

According to General Electric, where Six Sigma originated, there are six main concepts of Six Sigma.

  1. Critical to Quality: Attributes most important to the customer
  2. Defect: Failing to deliver what the customer wants
  3. Process Capability: What your process can deliver
  4. Variation: What the customer sees and feels
  5. Stable Operations: Ensuring consistent, predictable processes to improve what the customer sees and feels
  6. Design for Six Sigma: Designing to meet customer needs and process capability

Day in and day out as a Six Sigma Black Belt/Green Belt

Six Sigma as a methodology isn’t a way of managing a project, but more of a way to optimize business processes.  

Using data and analytical tools, you’ll focus on creating a “right process”—one that creates and delivers precisely what the customer needs, while minimizing defects. 

No Six Sigma effort can start without having a high-level picture of an organization’s customers and other stakeholders, their needs, and the business processes meant to fulfill those needs.

You’ll be talking to people and analyzing data a lot.

Six Sigma certifications are broken up into belts (a traditional indicator of skill level in martial arts), with Green Belt and Black Belt being the most popular.  Wikipedia describes the relationship between Black Belts and Green Belts:

Black Belts operate under Master Black Belts to apply Six Sigma methodology to specific projects.  Black Belts primarily focus on Six Sigma project execution and special leadership with special tasks.  Green Belts are the employees who take up Six Sigma implementation along with their other job responsibilities, operating under the guidance of Black Belts.

Expect to use these (or similar) software tools as a Six Sigma

  • Microsoft Project – This is the mainstay of project management.  Ideal for complex projects.
  • KPI Fire– Create and communicate project goals and metrics.
  • Minitab–  Tools to help identify and comprehend key statistics.
  • Microsoft Visio – For planning and charting, visualizing, and communicating.
  • Statgraphics – For data analysis, data visualization, statistical modeling, and predictive analytics.

Things to know before working as a Six Sigma Black Belt and Green Belt

Six Sigma was implemented at Motorola in 2005 and is attributed with having saved the company  US $17 billion.  There are definite advantages to optimizing business processes with Six Sigma.

On the other hand, Six Sigma has been criticised as not well suited for coming up with original ideas.  And if you think about it, the process is focused on making existing processes work more efficiently.  Creativity is usually spontaneous (this is where Scrum shines).  So just remember that the process that needs to be refined is an existing process focused on repeatable tasks.

If helping organizations remove defects and improve quality is something you are ambitious about, and you enjoy working with data, a Six Sigma certification could open up a number of interesting careers for you.

How to get Six Sigma Black Belt/Green Belt certification

From the IASSC, you will need to take an exam that demonstrates your competence of the IASSC Universally Accepted Lean Six Sigma Body of Knowledge for Black Belts or Green Belts, depending on the certification you are looking for.  

Prior project management experience is not required, and there are no prerequisites to take the exam.

You can prepare for the exam with our Six Sigma Black Belt course or Six Sigma Green Belt course.

Maintaining your Six Sigma certification

Generally, there are no requirements to stay certified. Since Green Belts only work with Six Sigma part of their time, some companies might require Green Belts to complete one project per year in order to maintain certification requirements.

How much does it cost

Tests are given in person through PearsonVue test centers located around the world.  IASSC says that web-based certification testing is ‘coming soon’.  The exam is $395 USD for Black Belt and $295 for Green Belt.

How much time to prepare

The Black Belt Exam takes about 4 hours, the Green Belt 2 hours. The preparation courses from Boost eLearning should take about 25 hours.

ITIL: Information Technology Infrastructure Library

The framework in a nutshell

ITIL is a certification provided by Axelos for IT service management, or ITSM.

The certification focuses on defining the best practices for providing ongoing services to customers.  An example of an IT service for customers is your personal email account, or any SaaS service.  An example of an IT service for a business unit is their company-wide internet access, or their internal help desk.  In this way, ITIL is unique among the certifications listed in this guide to project management certifications.

Traditionally, and by definition, it was used to apply a structure around information technology services for customers or other business units.  ITIL has been extended by some thought leaders, such as Reinoud Martens in an article in ComputerWeekly, to apply to areas outside of IT.

Day in and day out as an ITIL

If the PMP is the ‘glue’ holding together an individual project, working in ITIL is like building an entire factory: find out what customers need; design, build, and launch your factory; then make sure it runs efficiently, while you figure out how to regularly improve it. 

The ‘L’ in ITIL stands for Library, meaning the five Axelos books that make up ITIL for the overall service lifecycle:

  • Service Strategy:  Investigate customer needs.  Strategize how to position IT to best meet those needs.
  • Service Design: Not just designing new technology, but considering its total interaction, impact, and demand on a business in order to successfully deliver the new service.
  • Service Transition: Build and deploy a service to make it operational.
  • Service Operation: Delivering service, monitoring, and managing it.
  • Continual Service Improvement: Ongoing realignment of IT services to changing business needs.

Expect to use these (or similar) software tools as an ITIL

There are a number of IT services that help manage services across an organization.

  • ServiceNow – Is a collection of products that can provide company wide services.
  • Jira – From development company Atlassian.  This tool is designed for software development and has been implemented at several technology companies (as their ticketing system).
  • Wrike – Be sure you are assigning the right tasks to the right people at the right time.  Wrike is a service management system designed to work across the entire company.

Things to know before working as an ITIL

ITIL works best in structuring systems of ongoing services. If you want to be a part of a team that is building a project, ITIL is not for you. If you like building ongoing systems to enhance people’s productivity, working in ITIL can be great.

Since you will be changing the way people (let’s say, the help desk staff) are currently doing things, expect some push back as you try and explain why the new system is better. Also, if your role only works on Service Operation and Continual Service Improvement, you may find that crediting you and your team for providing value does not happen as automatically as it does for projects that have a clear start and stop point.

How to get ITIL certification

Select the exact certification you want.  For this guide, we’ll assume you are going for the most popular, ITIL Foundations.

Exams are offered through PeopleCert.  Please see their page for more information.

When used appropriately,

the control and framework of ITIL adds the right governance and stability to speed up the final mechanism. If ITIL is applied too heavy-handedly, it will slow down everything.
Meredith Courtemanche, TechTarget

Maintaining your ITIL certification

There are no requirements for maintaining your ITIL Foundations v3 certification.

How much does it cost

Cost will vary from location to location for the exam.

How much time to prepare

The Boost eLearning ITIL Foundations course should take about 13 hours to complete.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully, this guide to project management certifications has given you a good picture of the different types of certifications that are available.

While certifications are important, keep the following quotes from Daniel Gullo and Rick Smith in mind:

Certifications are not

the be-all, end-all in evaluating a person’s skillsets, worth, or potential. However, they CAN be a reasonable place to begin a conversation with someone.
Daniel Gullo

Six Sigma and other efficiency seeking approaches

can dramatically reduce variance and inefficiency in an organization. But if you’re not careful, innovation and growth may be swept away in the process.
Rick Smith, Forbes 'Is Six Sigma Killing Your Company's Future?'

Your ability to work and contribute to a company is so much bigger than earning a certification. But, the same thing can be said for many degrees. So, keep learning and do good work.

If you have any questions or corrections on something I missed, please let me know in the comments.

If this guide to project management certifications helped you out, let me know! Just say thanks in the comment below.

Whatever your next career move is, best of luck and much success!

About the Author

Jeff Alhadeff

Jeff enjoys helping people find the right certification to advance their career. When not working at Boost eLearning, he volunteers at his kids' school, runs, and bakes amazing pita bread.