Career / Management

CAPM or PMP: Which is Better?

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Published on May 20, 2019

Project management is a lucrative career choice with the average project manager salary exceeding $75,000 per year according to Glassdoor. Additionally, project management can open doors to exciting and engaging work in a variety of industries. It's no wonder many aspiring project managers look to advance their careers by obtaining project management certification.

If you're mulling over your options for project management certification, you've already heard of the Project Management Institute (PMI). You're also likely to be familiar with their Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM).

However, deciphering the differences and making an informed decision when comparing the PMP versus the CAPM can be difficult. Let's explore the differences between the two and help you decide whether the CAPM or PMP is right for you.

PMP vs. CAPM: What's the Difference?

The high-level difference between the PMP and CAPM certifications is: PMP is professional-level and CAPM is associate-level.

Professional implies you've had some experience in the field and are established as an expert. Therefore, the PMP is targeted toward experienced project managers. The semantics of "associate" vs "entry-level" can get a bit fuzzy depending on who you ask.

However, it is fair to call the CAPM an entry-level certification, at least when it comes to PMI certifications. As you'd expect, this means the CAPM exam is targeted toward anyone looking to obtain or enhance project management skills. Additionally, the CAPM exam is relatively easier, has less restrictive prerequisites, and is less expensive than the PMP.

From a popularity perspective, the PMP is certainly more well-known than the CAPM. This makes sense when you consider the PMP has been around longer. The PMP was introduced in 1984, while CAPM was in 2003. Additionally, according to PMI, as of January 2018 there were 833,025 active PMP certification holders compared to 34,599 CAPM certification holders.

This high-level comparison is useful to help understand difference between CAPM and PMP exam topically. However, if you are looking into obtaining a CAPM or PMP certification, you'll want to know more about the specifics.

What is the PMP exam?

The PMP certification is considered by many to be the gold standard when it comes to project management certifications. The PMP exam is also considered to be one of the toughest. It trails only the CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) on our list of 10 Most Difficult IT Certifications. The exam is four hours, consists of 200 multiple-choice questions, and is based on the concepts and principles in the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) Guide. The PMP goes beyond simple memorization of topics and concepts and actually tests your ability to apply knowledge.

Here are the details on the PMP exam cost, prerequisites, and recertification:

PMP exam Cost: $405 USD (PMI members) $555 USD (non-members)

PMP exam Prerequisites: High-school diploma or associate's degree (or equivalent), 7,500 project experience, and 35 hours of education in project management OR bachelor's degree (or equivalent 4-year degree), 4,500 project experience, & 35 hours of education in project management.

PMP Recertification/Maintenance: Earn 60 professional development units (PDUs) within three (3) years.

You can learn more about the PMP exam and certification process in the PMP handbook.

What is the CAPM exam like?

Similar to the PMP, the CAPM is based on the PMBOK. However, the CAPM is less focused on applied knowledge and focuses more on understanding the concepts and principles. Worded differently, if you get really comfortable with the PMBOK content, you have a good chance at passing the CAPM. The CAPM is 3-hours long and consists of 150 multiple-choice questions.

While the CAPM exam is easier than the PMP, it certainly isn't a cakewalk. In fact, CAPM also cracked our 10 Most Difficult IT Certifications list. The general consensus is CAPM is more difficult than other entry-level project management certifications like CompTIA Project+ or ITIL Foundation. We say that to say, don't underestimate the CAPM. In addition to mastering the content in the PMBOK, a good study-guide and online course can go a long way.

Here are the details on the CAPM exam cost, prerequisites, and recertification:

CAPM exam Cost: $225 USD (PMI members) $300 USD (non-members)

CAPM exam Prerequisites: High-school diploma or associate's degree (or equivalent) and 1,500 project experience OR 23 hours of education in project management.

CAPM Recertification: Every five (5) years, you must retake the CAPM exam

You can take a deeper dive on the CAPM exam and certification process in the CAPM handbook.

Can you upgrade your CAPM to a PMP?

At this point, you may be wondering: Can you upgrade CAPM to PMP? This question makes a lot of sense if you are familiar with Cisco certifications like the CCENT (Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician) and CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate).

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Unlike upgrading a CCENT to CCNA, you cannot upgrade CAPM to PMP. However, studying for and obtaining the CAPM can be useful in the pursuit of a PMP. The CAPM provides you with foundational knowledge that overlaps with the content on the PMP exam. Additionally, any project management education hours you got for your CAPM can be applied to your PMP prerequisites.

PMP vs CAPM: Roles and Responsibilities in the Real World

Comparing prerequisites, exam difficulty, and cost are useful measuring sticks for deciding on CAPM or PMP. Yet, understanding what a CAPM or PMP certification holder does in the real world may be more important. After all, a certification is a means to an end. If the types of roles a certification qualifies you for don't meet your expectations, you should reevaluate your decision.

After you obtain a PMP, you will be qualified for full-time project management roles where you manage projects of all sizes. Positions like program manager, project manager, and project controller are within reach. In these positions, you can expect to take ownership of large, complex projects. You will be expected to lead them to their conclusion on-time and within budget.

Once you are at the PMP level, previous project management experience is assumed and performance expectations are high. Companies will look for PMPs to apply project management best practices to help achieve organizational objectives.

If the CAPM is the extent of your project management credentials and experience, you'll likely start out at entry-level roles. You'll likely be qualified for positions such as assistant project manager, project coordinator, and junior business analyst. In these roles, you'll be able to apply your skills scheduling, coordinating between teams, and enabling effective communication. You likely won't be heading up large projects with big budgets solely on the basis of your CAPM certification.

However, if you already have a considerable technical experience, the CAPM may help propel you to a leadership position. For example, for a developer, a CAPM may be the boost you need to become a team lead. Similarly, a CAPM may help compel your employer to add some project management responsibilities to your current role. This in turn paves the way for a full-time project management position down the road.

While we're here, it is important to note that a single certification is only part of what qualifies you for a given role. Employers also will take into account experience, performance, and other variables when hiring. Everyone's situation is a little different, and your mileage may vary. If you're looking to roughly boil this down to what PMP vs CAPM certifications imply on your resume:

A PMP certification implies you have the skills and experience required to apply sound project management principles to real-world situations.

A CAPM certification implies you have a sound conceptual understanding of project management principles.

With this perspective, it's easy to understand why PMPs are placed into roles with higher levels of autonomy and responsibility.

Comparing PMP and CAPM salaries

There is no "one-size-fits-all" answer to the salary question when it comes to PMP and CAPM. Salary takes into account multiple variables, and certifications are just one of many. That being said, there are many estimates we can use to help understand general salary ranges.

For example, according to PayScale, the average salary for a PMP certification holder is $104,000 USD. Comparatively, PayScale pegs the average salary for a CAPM certification holder at $65,000 USD.

What should you take: CAPM or PMP?

Now that we understand the difference between PMP and CAPM, let's answer the questions: "CAPM or PMP, which one should you take?" and "is the CAPM certification worth it?".

The short answer to both is: it depends. However, there are a few rules of thumb you can follow to make an informed decision.

You have at least 2-3 years of experience managing projects (see What Counts as Project Management Experience? If you're not sure)

You are comfortable with exams that focus on applied knowledge

You meet the requirements in the PMP Role Delineation section of the PMP Handbook

If all of these apply to you, then you should probably jump straight to the PMP. If not, starting off with the CAPM makes more sense.

If you are just beginning your project management journey, don't worry about taking the PMP just yet. Instead, consider obtaining a CAPM and focus on gaining more real-world experience in project management.

Conclusion: Best is relative

As we have seen, the PMP and CAPM can both add value to an aspiring project manager's resume. The PMP is the gold standard of project management certifications, while the CAPM is a reputable entry-level certification. What's best for a cert-seeker at a given time will vary depending on their circumstances.

If you're a project manager with a few years of experience, the PMP is probably best. In this case, the CAPM would do little for you from a professional development perspective.

Alternatively, if you're just beginning to understand the fundamentals of project management or are still in college, consider the CAPM. At this stage, the CAPM may be a pragmatic way for you to take the next step in your career. Whatever choice you make, be sure to take the context of your own experience and situation into account.


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