By Rachel Sanders, Office of Sustainability
On my first “real” job hunt after completing my undergraduate degree, I remember being amazed at how many job postings coupled the phrase “entry-level position” with the recommendation (or requirement) of having project management experience. While research, lab work, and term papers are hallmarks of the college experience, more and more companies and organizations are prioritizing a background in project management as much as knowledge of a chosen field of study (See recent post: Green Jobs Here and Now).
But what exactly is project management experience, and how do you know if you have any? And more importantly, how does one become an experienced project manager? As the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) coordinator, I watch students struggle and learn throughout the process what it means to be a project manager.
I like to think of project management as a tidy (if vague) euphemism for the concept “life skills as applied to work.” Usually when someone asks if you have project management experience, they’re really asking if you are organized, able to think critically, able to work well as part of a team in a collaborative environment, able to take initiative and function as a leader, know how to control resources or manage a budget, and are comfortable with being flexible in order to achieve certain goals. In a nutshell, they want to know if you’re able to manage the process that leads to a product.
This is where things get really exciting.
The “product” or goal that you’re trying to achieve can be almost anything. It can be organizing an event for 300 people, producing a new anti-viral for a pharmaceutical company, designing an online campaign for a sustainable NGO, etc. Depending on your job or major, you might also be managing projects that aren’t your specialty but support your main area of work, such as writing grants and calling investors to fund your lab research. In fact, many people who do not have the words “project manager” in their title are performing project management tasks every day in their jobs.
This means that you could be a project manager and gain project management experience in various positions within almost any field of study!
Let’s look at what it means to be a project manager and focus on a couple of characteristics. In order to manage projects well, you need to think critically about your project and what it is going to take to achieve your end goal or product. You also need to be flexible in how you approach your goals and be able to reassess things and tweak your efforts as things progress. As a university student, you are currently in the BEST possible environment to practice these skills, and there are a number of programs on campus that exist solely to help you in your project management endeavors.
The program I coordinate, SCIF, offers grants to students interested in creating and managing projects which enhance sustainability on campus. A number of the applications we see are for incredibly innovative ideas (something we encourage) from a variety of different areas of study, and require a great deal of critical thinking, organization, and collaboration to be successfully managed and implemented. Students interact with a variety of faculty and staff, as well as their peers, to bring their ideas to fruition, and learn a great deal about the processes and changes an idea must go through before it can be approved. Not every SCIF project is able to be funded, but each student who goes through the full application process gains project management experience regardless of if they receive a grant.
If you are interested in gaining project management experience and would like to learn how you might do so on campus, check out the contact information for various programs below. For additional reading, you may like Fast Company’s interview with Frank Ryle, author of “Keeping Score: Project Management for Pros,” and a 20-year project management veteran.
U of U campus project management opportunities:
- The Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund: Call (801)581-7510 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Global Change & Sustainability Center
- UROP – Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program
- Bennion Center
Rachel Sanders is the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund Coordinator with the Office of Sustainability.