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

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 1, 2021

While project managers oversee individual projects, program managers preside over the strategy and success of multiple connected projects.

An aspiring program manager confirms the difference between project managers and program managers on her tablet.

Program managers and project managers have related and often intertwining roles. While a project manager will orchestrate the success of individual projects, program managers will oversee the strategy of all interrelated projects, collectively called a program. Here's a closer look at each role and their distinctions.

Program manager vs. project manager: What do they do?

Project managers lead individual projects to completion, while program managers are in charge of ensuring groups of projects are carried out effectively. But how do the day-to-day of their roles differ?

A program manager oversees groups of projects that are linked through a common organizational goal—collectively called a program. The program manager works to make sure the program is aligned with the organization’s larger strategy. They might:

  • Work with project managers to plan project schedules, budgets, and goals

  • Collaborate with executive management to help achieve an organization’s goals and come up with new strategies

  • Facilitate communication across different projects and cross-functional teams

A project manager makes sure individual projects are carried out on time, within budget, and in alignment with goals. They assemble team members, plan project costs, manage risks, and make sure team members are on schedule. Specific tasks can include:

  • Plan and acquire project resources like budget, teams, and tools

  • Communicate with stakeholders (including program managers) and project team members to ensure alignment around goals

  • Maintain progress on projects by motivating team members, addressing pain points, and leading quality assurance

Read more: What Does a Project Manager Do? A Career Guide

Program managers vs. project managers: How are they different?

The differences between project managers and program managers can be broken down largely into three main points:

  • Program managers oversee groups of projects, while project managers lead individual projects. This makes the program manager more of a strategic player than the project manager.

  • Program managers tend to have more managerial duties than project managers, as they can oversee multiple projects. This can lead to more responsibilities and higher salaries for program managers.

  • Projects have limited timeframes, and programs can run without a fixed end. This means a program manager can stay with a program indefinitely, while a project manager is in charge of a project from its beginning to its end. A project manager will move from project to project, while a program manager will usually stay with the same program in their role.

How do these positions work together in practice?

Let’s say, for example, that you’re a program manager on a company’s design team. You might be in charge of making sure project managers on the design team have the resources they need to execute their projects, and that their project goals are aligned with the team’s larger goals. If you were a project manager, you might be tasked with overseeing the projects themselves. For example, you might carry out an effort to redesign the website or update the company’s branding.

Which should I choose?

Both project and program managers organize teams to meet a larger goal. However, because project managers generally move from project to project, project management can be a good choice for those who prefer variety in their work. Becoming a program manager can be rewarding if you have dedicated expertise you can contribute to the well-being of a program.

Program and project management require many of the same skills, and it’s not rare that project managers become program managers. If you’re not sure where to start, consider project management positions, which can lead to program management positions.

Read more: Scrum Master vs. Project Manager: Differences Explained

Program vs. project manager: Salary and job growth

Program manager and project manager salaries

PositionGlassdoorPayscaleSalary.comIndeed
Program manager$94,902$84,430$138,128$74,481
Project manager$87,472$75,036$67,372$74,831

Data based on average US salaries as of August 2021

Because program managers are often tasked with overseeing multiple projects in a program, several salary aggregation sites list program managers as making higher salaries than project managers. The exception is Indeed, which lists program and project managers as making roughly the same salary.

Program and project manager salaries can depend on many factors, including industry and experience. Marketing program managers, for example, earn an average salary of $101,126, while a construction program manager earn $80,614, according to Glassdoor data.

Job growth

Program management and project management are both growing fields. Data from Burning Glass Technologies in 2020 shows that program management jobs are expected to grow by eight percent in the next decade [1]. The Project Management Institute (PMI) also found that globally, project management-related jobs are expected to grow by 33 percent from 2017 to 2027 [2].

Program vs. project manager skills

Project managers are expected to know how to manage risk, balance budgets, and implement project management tools, in addition to having leadership qualities and good communication skills. More specifically, they can include:

  • Project management approaches and methodologies (eg. Agile, Waterfall, Scrum)

  • Budgeting

  • Risk management

  • Using and implementing project management tools like Asana, GANTT charts, and burndown charts

Program managers often have strong managerial skills and familiarity with business operations, in addition to project management skills. These can include:

  • Operations and/or business knowledge

  • Leadership and management

  • Project management    

Both project managers and program managers should have the following:

  • Industry experience

  • Communication

  • Cross-functional collaboration

  • Organization

Read more: 11 Key Project Management Skills

Program and project manager certifications

Project manager certifications can solidify your expertise in project management, or get you started on a path to becoming one.

  • Project Management Professional (PMP): The PMP is the most commonly acquired project management certification in the world. The PMP is administered by the Project Management Institute (PMI).

  • Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM): The CAPM is designed for candidates who hope to land entry-level project management positions. It’s also administered by the PMI.

  • Scrum master certifications: Getting a Scrum master certification often means becoming a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) or Professional Scrum Master (PSM I), though other Scrum master certifications exist.

Read more: How to Get a PMP Certification: An Overview

Take a quick look at program manager job postings and you’ll find requests for program manager certifications are less frequent than certification requests for project managers. Still, program management certifications can be useful for those who want to skill up to take on more complex program management assignments.

  • Program Management Professional (PgMP): Offered by the PMI, the PgMP is designed for experienced program management professionals.

Get started

The first step to becoming a project manager is to acquire the skills you’ll need. Even if you’re an aspiring program manager, you’ll want to have at least a basic understanding of project management. You can learn the essentials of project management through several online courses, like the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate. Learn job-ready skills from top industry experts in six months or less.

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Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Is a program manager more senior than a project manager?

Generally, yes. Program managers oversee programs, which can consist of many simultaneous projects. However, project managers with years of experience may have more senior titles than program managers, and program managers are not always the direct manager of the project manager. It should be noted that organizations may also use program and project manager interchangeably. 

Do project managers and program managers work together?

Yes. Program managers can manage several project managers. The project manager often works with the program manager to determine project goals, acquire resources, and build project teams.

Which teams do project managers work with?

Project managers can be embedded within specific teams like engineering, IT, or design. They can also be a part of a project management team, and work on several different teams depending on the project.

Article sources

1. Burning Glass. "Dice: Project Manager Interview Questions: 4 Key Topics to Consider, https://www.burning-glass.com/dice-project-manager-interview-questions-4-key-topics-consider/." Accessed September 1, 2021.

2. Project Management Institute. "Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap 2017–2027, https://www.pmi.org/learning/careers/job-growth." Accessed August 30, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 1, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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