How to Become a Program Manager: Career Paths, Certifications, and Jobs

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Understand the program manager career path, including jobs, salary, what you need to do to get into the field, and certifications to upskill.

[Featured image]:  Program manager overseeing a project with a team member.

What is a program manager?

Program managers are responsible for overseeing a set of projects that contribute to an overall program or objective. These managers are strategic, excellent communicators, highly organized, and responsible for evaluating individual projects and ensuring they’re all aligned. 

Career options are varied, with many different industries requiring program managers, including engineering, IT, health care, and finance. Career development options are available for those who are willing to gain certifications, experience, and advance from a project manager role.

Read more: What Is a Program Manager?

What does a program manager do?

Program managers oversee several interconnected projects, all aligned to a greater company program, goal, or objective. The program manager designs the overall program, manages budgets, and monitors the progress of each project.

Program management is often categorized with project management, but they’re not the same. A project manager manages an individual project, whereas a program manager oversees lots of projects run by project managers that contribute to an overall program. 

Common program manager responsibilities may include:

  • Managing cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams and project managers

  • Creating strategic plans and monitoring progress

  • Monitoring and overseeing related  projects

  • Managing budgets, deadlines, and targets

  • Developing a roadmap to connect projects to a program 

  • Communicating objectives and direction clearly

  • Assessing program performance

  • Preparing reports for program directors

Read more: Program Manager vs. Project Manager: What’s the Difference?

Salary and job outlook

Program managers in the US earn an average annual salary of $106,593 [1]. Most program managers can earn from $78,000 to over $158,000 depending on years of experience. Different roles within program management and industries may affect earning potential as well. 

Program managers are in demand, given that positions are available in various sectors. The Project Management Institute (PMI) predicts 25 million new project professionals will be needed to fill positions globally by 2030 [2]. That means 2.3 million people will need to take on new project management-oriented jobs each year, including program managers.

How to become a program manager 

A career in program management is competitive. To be successful, a high level of education, experience and progression within the industry is required, usually starting in a project manager role. 

1. Earn a degree.

A bachelor’s degree is typically the minimum educational requirement for a role in program management. According to Zippia, 66 percent of program managers have a bachelor’s and 19 percent have a master’s degree. The degree subject needs to be relevant to the industry you’re applying to or in business, management, or business administration

To continue to progress into more senior levels, you may be required to earn a master’s, depending on the industry. A master’s degree may also improve your prospects and higher earning potential. 

2. Build up your skills in project management.

To become a program manager, you may need a background in project management along with industry experience. 

Starting as a project manager means you have experience in:

  • Leading teams

  • Prioritizing tasks

  • Understanding project timelines

  • Project management software

  • Budgeting projects

  • Business processes

Junior project manager roles

Working in a project management role to work up to program manager is a great way to gain the necessary skills and experience. A junior position will likely be relevant if you’re starting out. Some job titles and annual salaries include: 

*All average US salaries are sourced from Glassdoor as of October 2022 

  • Assistant project manager: $65,589  [3]

  • Associate project manager: $71,568 [4]

  • Junior project manager: $71,568 [5]

  • Project coordinator: $53,950 [6]

Senior/executive project manager roles

It’s a common transition to go from working in a senior project management position to a program manager, or vice versa, if they are at similar levels or a step up, given the cross-over in skill set. If you have this experience, you may be in an excellent position to apply for a program manager role. 

Read more: 11 Key Project Management Skills

3. Gain program management experience.

If you’re just starting your career in this field, apply for junior-level program management positions. This route helps you gain relevant experience to progress through the ranks to more senior positions. Senior program managers are extremely experienced, having demonstrated their skills and credentials on a number of successful projects and programs. 

If you’re already working in project management, consider how you approach your work and treat the projects you run as programs. To do this, you can structure the work of the junior project managers you oversee as mini projects, which you pull together.

4. Collaborate with a program manager mentor.

When considering a career to enter, having the support of someone who has the experience you’re looking to have can be invaluable. Finding a program manager mentor may help you:

  • Understand the role

  • The route to getting into the role

  • Evaluate the skills you have and need to develop

  • Create a vision of what you want

Having a mentor can be your guide through what would otherwise be unknown territory.  

5. Obtain certifications.

In addition to education and experience, being certified in relevant areas is beneficial and can help you stand out from the competition as you move up the ladder. Some jobs may ask for specific certifications to qualify for the role. You may want to consider the following certifications from established organizations: 

  • Certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt (ICGB)

  • Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers (FAC-P/PM)

  • Program Management Professional (PgMP)

  • Project Management Professional (PMP)

Read more: 10 PMI Certifications to Level Up Your Project Management Career

Program manager career paths

Once you become a program manager, you are in an excellent place to start developing your career and aiming for more senior positions. With program management experience, you can progress to a number of different roles including:

  • Senior program manager: $136,507 [14]

  • Business change manager: $105,017 [15]

  • Program manager IV: $127,572 [16]

  • Management consultant: $102,478 [17

Each year, the PMI publishes an annual salary survey reporting on global salary information for the project management field. The 12th edition (2021) gives insight into the career path you might take as a program manager and the average salary you can expect in the US [18]:

  • Project manager I: $83,000

  • Project management specialist: $84,500

  • Project manager II: $96,063

  • Project manager III: $115,000

  • Project management consultant: $120,000

  • Program manager: $127,100

  • Portfolio manager: $140,000

  • Director of project management/project management office: $145,000

To progress in your career as a program manager, you must continually build your project experience and engage in professional development. To step up to the highest level of program management, you may need to demonstrate the following:

  • Long-term program management expertise

  • Understanding the organization's management structure, politics, and culture

  • Expertise in both project and program management

  • Experience in project management techniques and tools

  • Thriving under pressure

  • Strategic vision

  • Clear communication

  • Multitasking and prioritization skills

  • Leadership skills

  • Ability to manage change

  • Collaboration and relationship building 

  • Business acumen 

These are all skills and knowledge that are essential to be a program manager. The following are possible positions that may transition into a program manager role. 

Get started in program management

To further your career in program management, upskilling and keeping current with program management tools and trends is a priority. Consider studying an online course or earning certification. A great starting point to focus on is your project management abilities, with the Google Project Management Professional Certificate or learning Agile Project Management techniques. 

Article sources


Glassdoor. “Program Manager Salaries,,2_IN1_KO3,18.htm.” Accessed August 7, 2023.

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