Program Manager vs. Project Manager: What is the Difference?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

While project managers handle individual projects, program managers are responsible for the strategy and success of multiple connected projects.

[Featured Image]:  A person in a blue shirt and gray sweater vest stands in a warehouse lined with orange shelving and discusses with someone in a pink shirt whether they need a program manager or a project manager for a job.

Program managers and project managers have related and often intertwining roles. While a project manager orchestrates the success of individual projects, program managers handle the strategy of all interrelated projects, collectively called a program. Here is a closer look at each role and its 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 is responsible for groups of projects that are linked through a common organisational goal—collectively called a program. The program manager works to make sure the program is aligned with the organisation’s larger strategy. They might:

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

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

  • Facilitate communication across different projects and cross-functional teams

Project managers ensure 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

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 may run indefinitely as they do not have fixed tenure. This means a program manager can stay with a program for a longer duration, 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 us say, for example, that you are 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 organise 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 several similar skills and it is not rare that project managers become program managers. If you are unsure where to start, consider project management roles, which may further lead to program management positions.

Program vs. project manager: Salary and job growth

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. For example, Glassdoor India reports ₹18,00,000 [1] as the average program manager salary and ₹15,00,000 [2] as the average project manager 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 ₹16,57,973 [3], while a construction program manager earns ₹10,00,000 [4], according to Glassdoor data.

Job growth

Program management and project management are both growing fields. While has 4,000 job listings for freshers (up to one year experience), the number leaps to over 17,852 for program managers with at least five years experience, as of September 2022 [5]. The Project Management Institute (PMI) also found that globally, project management-related jobs are expected to grow by 33 percent from 2017 to 2027 [6].

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 (e.g. 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

  • Organisation

Program and project manager certifications

Project manager certifications can enhance 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 is 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.

Take a quick look at program manager job postings and you'll find requests for program manager certifications are less frequent vis-a-vis 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 will need. Even if you are an aspiring program manager, you will 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.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Article sources


Glassdoor. "Program Manager Salaries in Republic of India,,5_IN115_KO6,21.htm?clickSource=searchBtn." Accessed November 3, 2022.

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