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I graduated with a BS in compsci last September, and I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to find a job as a project manager ever since.

I fell in love with software engineering (the formal practice behind it all, not just coding) in school, and I've dedicated the last 3-4 years of my life to learning everything I can about project management and gaining experience. I've managed several projects (with teams around 12 people) while in school, and I worked with my university's software engineering research lab. My résumé is also decent - I worked as a programmer before I went to school (I'm 27 now), and I did Google Summer of Code for 3 summers. I also have general "people management" experience via working as the photo editor for my university's newspaper for 2 years.

My first problem with the job hunt is not getting enough interviews. I use careers.stackoverflow.com, which is awesome because I usually get contacted by non-HR people who know what they're talking about, but there's just not enough companies using it for me to get interviews on a regular basis. I've also tried sites like monster.com, and in a fit of desperation, I sent out no less than 60 applications to project management positions. I've gotten 3 automated rejection letters and that's it. At least careers.stackoverflow gets me a phone interview with 8/10 places I apply to.

But the main (and extremely frustrating) problem is the matter of experience. I've successfully managed projects from start to finish (in my software engineering classes we had real customers come in with a real software need and we built it for them), but I've never had to deal with budgets and money (I know this is why HR people immediately turn me away). Most of these positions require 5+ years PM experience, and I've seen absurd things like 12+ years required.

Interviews are also maddening. I've had so many places who absolutely loved me and I made it to the final round of interviews, and I left thinking things went extremely well and they'd consider me. However, when I check in with them a week later, they tell me "We really liked you and your qualifications are excellent, but we're hoping to find someone with more experience." The bad interviews I can understand - like the PM position that would have had me managing developers both locally and overseas - I had 3 interviews with them and the ENTIRE interview process was them asking me CS brainteasers and having me waste time on things like writing quicksort on paper or writing binary search trees. Even when I tried steering the discussion towards more relevant PM stuff, they gave me some vague generic replies and went back to the "We want to be Google/MS" crap.

But when I have a GOOD interview, they say my "qualifications are excellent" but they want "more experience"...that makes me want to tear my hair out. What else can I DO? While I'm aiming for technically-involved PM positions (not just crunching budget numbers), I really don't want a straight development job because I like creating software from the very high-level vs. spending a lot of time debugging memory leaks. In fact, I can't even GET development positions that I'm qualified for because I make the mistake of telling them that my future career goals are as PM (which usually results in them saying something like "Well we already have PMs and this position isn't really set up to get you there." - which I take to mean "No, that's my job, stay away.")

My apologies on the long rant, but I'm seriously hellbent on getting hired as a PM since it's both my career goal and the passion that keeps me awake at night. Any suggestions on what the heck else I can do? I'm currently writing a blog where I talk about my philosophies about software engineering, and I'm writing up specs for an iOS app which I will design, code, and show employers, but this takes an awful lot of time that I don't have.

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The answer could just be that "you need to spend some time on the shop-floor" before you work your way up. If you're good, you should bubble real quick because there will be proof (as opposed to 'trust me and my creds') –  Gishu Jun 2 '11 at 5:12
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Go code instead of worrying about job titles. I would hate to have a project manager that has never had real experiencing coding. –  Ben B. Jun 3 '11 at 11:37
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"in a fit of desperation" you actually applied to some jobs? That's some odd wording. –  pyvi Jun 3 '11 at 11:51
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The answer is, you need more experience, you have to spend some time cleaning the deck before you sit in the captain's chair. Honestly if your college experience was anything like mine, you are not ready to manage your own team, your experience running a team of students is nothing like running a team of "professional". –  Ramhound Jun 3 '11 at 18:08
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This question illustrates the problem with our field. If you aren't really interested in the low-level coding details, there is no "entrypoint" to get to the role you should be doing (e.g. Systems/Business Analyst, Project Manager, etc.). The advice saying "start as a coder" won't help because if he doesn't care for software he's not going to excel in those positions, so it's rare to get the required experience to do what he wants to do. This is what I've experienced for over 6 years in software. –  Wayne M Jun 6 '11 at 17:41

11 Answers 11

up vote 40 down vote accepted

Experience is (Often) Key

Unfortunately, while this may be very frustrating, your skills and the knowledge of project management that you acquired at university or during your previous projects appears insufficient to a lot of people; I know I would be cautious.

I can understand the frustration, but there's always the danger that, while you seem like a potentially good project manager for a "perfect situation", there's no way to assess how you'd react when facing difficult times - let alone a crisis.

And that's a doubt that, unfortunately, is only vanquished by the re-assurance that you've had enough years to break your teeth on these problems.

Your biggest problem is, quite simply and paradoxically, that you have never failed, yet!! We cannot evaluate what your limits are, what makes you run, what makes you tick, what throws you off.

It's Not You: It's Everybody

Programmers looking for graduate jobs have actually the same problem, and it applies to many other professions as well: our industry is not that special. Newly graduated programmers will have very good skills: in some areas, even a lot sharper than a lot of their seniors. Similarly, you may well be more up to date with modern management techniques than older managers. Yet again, those new programmers don't have the right gut feelings, the habit of listening to the wooshing sound of deadlines flying by (D. Adams) faster than you had expected and the right overview. And in your case, you probably would have situations that you would have a hard time dealing with. Or, at least, that's what people assume.

It's frustrating, but not much you can do.

Interviewing

Now the worrying part is more about interviewing. You say you had phone interviews, but how many face-to-face interviews? If you haven't had enough interviews, then that's a much bigger red-flag. It means there's really something going wrong during the phone interviews and you need to reflect on that.

You seem to assume about what went wrong and put them off. Did you ask for feedback? Did the recruiters have any recommendations? They're sharks who tick checkboxes (to HR-people reading this: not you. You're awesome. We love you. Keep it up...), but they do that for a living. They may not understand what you do, but they know what the companies want (or think they want...). Ask for their help.

About getting turned down during interviews because you mention that you want to become a PM... you should keep saying that! Maybe you'll get turned down but you won't end up in a place where you don't want to be. On the other hand, if you can accommodate with another role for a while, maybe you should bite the bullet and get some more experience there. Before becoming a PM, maybe being a development lead wouldn't be as bad. But ultimately, even from dev lead to PM, the switch is pretty difficult.

But First... Getting Those Interviews!

Also, if you didn't get that many phones interviews via other channels than Careers.SO, then here's what I'd recommend.

Certifications and Training

  • Get a certification for a big, old fashioned boring methodology (I can hear angry comments coming in by waves... /me bracing for impact). For instance, look at governmental positions in your area and the kind of certifications they require, and take a course and get certified for those. Maybe you don't like them, but they'll get you more respect from those who have them or want them.
  • Take training courses on other development methodologies, for instance in Agile development. Become a SCRUM Master, maybe.
  • Take training courses more oriented towards actual business management, involving managing budgets and team resources. It's a bit (very?) scary that you'd think you can handle that part of the job if you've never done it before. You will be responsible for loads of money, and people's positions and lives. How their resumes will look in the future partly depends on you as well. Do not take that lightly.

Find a Good Ramp to Jump-Start your Career: Startups

  • Find a startup or get some experience in a venture or something. A lot are less regarding on experience, because they often are started by young technologists and have limited budgets so they'll be OK with settling.
  • Do examine it carefully before you join though, because nothing's worse for a young project manager than a first project that tanked. Even though that's common with startups, you want to be able to show that, after only a few years there, you have demonstrated your leadership skills. That it was your strategic guidance that was one of the keys to success.
  • Do you have any acquaintances who work for local, relatively small not-for-profit organization or charity? These can be good starting points.

Recruitment Agencies, Job Sites and Alternatives

  • Use different agencies.
  • Online websites like Monster are fine, but your CV is harvested by everybody, or you apply to positions directly where 400 other people already applied. Use other channels. Did you try to...:
    • Use Google Search/Bing/Other to land their "jobs" or "career" pages?
    • Use Google Maps and appropriate keywords to find companies of interest and ?
  • Target different industries. Some industries have more targeted recruitment techniques. For instance, the IT-for-finance market has for some reasons agencies that are very active. They tend to work for business people with deep pockets, so they try their best to really find the best. They follow up with you, they prepare you for interviews, they tear your resume apart and help you rebuild it if they think you're worth it. You may dislike what they suggest, but for their industry, consider they know best. And for other industries, you'd have picked up a few tricks.

Get Some Exposure and Contacts

  • Network!!
    • Use your Facebook, your Twitter, your carrier-pigeon. Everything!!
    • Carry resumes around.
    • Attend events, conferences.
    • Attend job fairs.
  • Build up a portfolio
    • Get recommended on LinkedIn
    • Be ultra active on Project Management.SE!
    • Fine-tune and focus your resumes and cover letters for each job
    • Prepare a visual presentation (powerpoint, video, funky website) of:
      • your projects and achievements
      • maybe even a fictional project to present
  • If you're applying for a location where you're not already... That's even harder. You want to be a manager. Which means you need to be a people's person. You need to communicate, drive points through, be authoritative but also a good listener. I cannot evaluate that over the phone. So, if you cannot go where you're future money should be so you can be on-site for interviews, networking is even more important. You need recommendations.

Consider Other Positions/Roles

  • Consider being a managing assistant first. You'll get first-hand mentoring, some connections, build up your experience and portfolio, and have the opportunity to both take initiatives and make mistakes, with a lesser degree of responsibility and liability.
  • Consider Dev Lead or QA Lead positions.
  • Consider a marketing-related position. You will be more in touch with business aspects.
  • Basically, consider that any interview you get for a position, even if it's not the right one for you, gets you some contacts at recruitment agencies AND inside some companies. I often recommended candidates who weren't right for the role we were trying to fill to other departments, if I had a hunch they would be good candidates.

Don't Give Up

  • 60 applications are nothing, if you don't spend a lot of time preparing them.
  • Research and prepare each one. Follow up with the recruiters/employers on LinkedIn, Xing, Viadeo or other professional networks.
  • Be creative!

Harsh Possibility: It Might Just NOT Happen (Right Now)

You are still very young and just graduated. That year is one of the first things people will see, right after noticing that you have almost 0 professional experience. Sell any previous PM-related experience as well as you can, but don't embellish: be prepared to defend everything you state on your resume.

I have to tell you, at the risk of demotivating you, that I think (because of the way you write and some of the things you wrote) that you don't have a clear vision of what PM really involves. Or maybe you do, but unfortunately that's not how you come across. You sound unaware and quite idealistic. And if that's also how you come across during the phone interviews, that's a big question mark for your interviewers that they write with a big red marker in the margin of your resume.

Sorry, I don't mean to sound judgmental or anything, but the recruitment dance is hard from both sides, and I know I would be very reluctant to hire someone with little experience for a PM position. And even worse, actually: I'd be afraid that the people who will then work under you will question my choice and question your abilities when at the first meeting or the first coffee break you start introducing your previous projects as only summer or university projects (because it seems that's all you have).

You even say in a comment to another answer that:

[you have leadership experience] both through project management coursework (undergrad and grad level), and managing ~20 newspaper photographers (not SEng, but still management). [You] do realize that doesn't compare to doing it for 5 years at a tech company, but it's not as though [you] have nothing whatsoever under [your] belt

Yet it does sound like you don't have that much under your belt. There's nothing that really makes you stand out.

Coursework is not experience: it's coursework. And you know what coursework is in most universities (and even some good ones)? Horse-doodoo. That's pretty much it. It's a big fat pile of pointers and references to (often outdated) material, assembled by teachers who may not even be that knowledgeable in the first place or have the experience for the things they pretend to teach you.

Managing 20 photographers in a newspaper is something, alright. But what did YOU do? What were your responsibilities and tasks? What was your mission, your appointment? What successes did you achieve? You don't present your case very well here, so it might be that you present it under the same (diffuse) light when you advertise yourself. Did you (or a group you were a part of) found the paper, or were you taking over after a previous team? Did you set up new processes? Train people? Decice of the assignments of each of those?

Don't get me wrong. Those experiences are valuable: if you didn't have them on your resume, you probably wouldn't be considered at all. But they don't qualify to get that sort of position. As mentioned above: there might be hundreds of people trying to apply for the PM positions you look at. You may just well be in the upper half of the pile, and the ones without any sort of experience and who are just trying their luck are in the lower half. Now you get to really sell your way through to the top 5 for a face to face interview, and make damn good pitch and show that not only you are good at what you do, but you'll get better and won't get surprised by the things you don't even know.

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Thanks. I definitely understand their caution regarding years of experience vs. years of knowledge. In terms of phone vs face-to-face interviews, I should mention that I'm applying mainly in NYC and Boston - places where I don't live yet. I've had a few video Skype interviews in lieu of in-person. I think it's more the developer jobs that end with a phone interview because they can see I want to be in PM and not just coding. I'd LOVE to get hired at a startup - just had a fantastic interview with a fantastic company, but alas, the guy with 10 years won out. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 0:41
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Big thanks on pm.stackexchange.com ! Didn't know that existed. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 1:25
    
@MHarrison: edited my answer with a bunch of things. pm.SE is in beta since 3 months, so it's not that active yet, but do go have a look over there. –  haylem Jun 2 '11 at 1:26
    
Just saw your edits - I most definitely appreciate all the feedback you've given me. My résumé/cover letters certainly elaborate quite a bit more than I have on my initial question here. I agree that most coursework is doodoo, but the PM course were hands-on: in one, I managed a team of developers who wrote a front-end for an emergency department discrete event simulator for the ED manager at a local hospital. I then took an independent study to continue working on the project. But I know it's not the same as commercial experience. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 1:38
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If these developers were students, while the end product might be wonderful, its still nothing like working with professionals. –  Ramhound Jun 3 '11 at 18:14

Frankly, good PMs have spent time in the "trenches". They've experienced enough process and management failures as developers to know what not to do as a manager. I personally would find it difficult to justify hiring a PM who doesn't have any experience as a developer.

I realize that you won't like the answer, but I really don't think there's any substitute for experience in this case.

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Well, I DO have development experience - it's been my background thus far. I'm trying to sell myself as a "PM with a developer background", which other devs/PMs/CTOs love to hear, but apparently HR hates it. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 0:30
    
Do you have any team leadership experience? –  Rein Henrichs Jun 2 '11 at 0:30
    
Yes - both through project management coursework (undergrad and grad level), and managing ~20 newspaper photographers (not SEng, but still management). I do realize that doesn't compare to doing it for 5 years at a tech company, but it's not as though I have nothing whatsoever under my belt. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 0:35
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@MHarrison: Realistically coursework typically isn't worth the paper your certificate is printed on. Every company I have worked for only populated "entry" PM positions with in-house personnel. Your best bet is to get a development position within a company and push for a PM position from that angle. An in-house mentor will especially aid that tactic. –  Joel Etherton Jun 2 '11 at 0:55

But the main (and extremely frustrating) problem is the matter of experience. I've successfully managed projects from start to finish (in my software engineering classes we had real customers come in with a real software need and we built it for them), but I've never had to deal with budgets and money (I know this is why HR people immediately turn me away).

Right, so you haven't actually managed software projects from start to finish with real world constraints. Those exercises are great, but they are just that; exercises. Successful managers have experience and can manage people. You need to earn the experience and prove that you can manage people before anyone is going to hand you a job.

No matter what you think the odds of you being ready to manage projects in the real world straight out of college are stiflingly small. Even if you did get the job you would have a hell of time earning the respect of the people who work for you who have been doing the real work for years. I would be suspect of any company who would offer you such a position. You're not ready (neither am I for that matter, and I have 5 years experience and have managed many small scale projects).

Most of these positions require 5+ years PM experience, and I've seen absurd things like 12+ years required.

12+ years may seem absurd when 12 years is over 50% of your life so far, but it's not absurd at all. These companies want tested, experienced program managers, and they have no incentive to gamble on the success of their company.

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A valid point, sure. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 0:48

I don't think many, if any companies are going to hire someone to run a project without any demonstrable commercial experience of delivering projects within budget and the allocated time. The risk for the company is just too great - you might be the best thing ever that happened to project management but they have no way to gauge that, and a lot of them feel they got burned even by supposedly experienced project managers.

If you want to go into that direction, you'll probably have to find a job as an assistant PM (no idea if that's the title) or interview for development roles that give you some leadership/management exposure. Once you demonstrate you can handle that, you can probably look either for an internal or "external" promotion to a PM role.

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Thanks. I have seen "Associate PM" jobs, but haven't had any luck in getting an interview for one. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 0:26

I've never known anyone who was hired directly for his first PM position. Usually we only take a risk on a new PM that we already know is a good developer and tech lead. Anytime we hire a PM from outside it is for someone with years of PM experience. I would suggest getting a dev positon in a large company (or a tech lead if you can swing it with your dev experience) and growing into the PM role internally.

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Do you have any suggestions on how I should handle developer interviews? They seem to go fine until they ask me where I want to be in 5 years and I say "Project Management". What's the balance between turning them away because they think I don't really want to be a dev and letting them know that "dev is fine for now, but I REALLY want to end up in PM"? –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 0:43
    
@MHarrison Companies that you are interviewing with aren't fine with you wanting to be a PM in 5 years? That's interesting. What industries are you working in? My primary interest is in defense and intelligence (both government and defense contractor), and a 5-7 year window of developer to PM is typical (moreso on the government side of things, though) if you stay within an organization. I'm not sure how other industries operate...I've been told that it takes closer to 10-12 years to become a PM in some. –  Thomas Owens Jun 2 '11 at 1:21
    
For some reason, my PM goals have been a BIG turnoff for every interviewer I've had for development positions so far. I'm mainly interested in web and mobile development, ideally in the medical field since I have experience and interest there, but I'm open. I guess they're looking for code monkeys (and they know I won't be happy doing that for long) or the company already has enough PMs and doesn't see a need for more in the near-future. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 1:43
    
I also think it's odd that you are getting passed over because you mention wanting to PM in the future. Virtually every programmer I've interviewed says they want to PM when asked that ol' chestnut: "where do you see yourself in 5-7 years." Perhaps this is not the reason you are actually getting passed over. –  Graham Jun 3 '11 at 14:00
    
@MHarrison: How sure are you that it's your PM goals that are a turnoff? If you tend to reach a certain point of the interview and crash and burn, what else were you talking about? –  David Thornley Jun 3 '11 at 20:19

I've been a developer for ten years. Personally I would resign from any company in which would allow developers managed by random guy straight out of college. To be a good manager you need to EARN the respect of the people who will be doing the work.

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To be a good manager you need to EARN the respect of the people who will be doing the work. From an organizational behavior perspective, not necessarily. There are 6 bases of power - positional, referent, expert, reward, coercive, and informational. What you refer to is referent power - having the respect and loyalty of those you lead. However, if you have knowledge and skills (expert), the ability to utilize the information and resources at your disposal (informational), and a position/title of authority (positional), it's very possible to be gain the referent power quickly. –  Thomas Owens Jan 19 '12 at 12:53

Perhaps you could look for a position as a business analyst. That involves working with customers to determine requirements and specifications and involves some management of the developers. The business analyst needs to have enough technical knowledge to be able to flesh out the requirements by asking the right questions and to explain the requirements to the developers.

From the company's standpoint, it is much less risky to have an inexperienced business analyst than to have an inexperienced project manager just as it's less risky to have an inexperienced developer rather than an inexperienced architect. A business analyst role lets you get your feet wet managing budgets as well as demonstrating your project management skills like managing stakeholders and company politics. Assuming you do well as a business analyst, it should be far easier to convince a company to promote you to a full fledged project management role.

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Thanks, I'll look for this type of job - requirements and specs are one of my favorite parts of PM. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 1:27
    
+1, this was going to be my suggestion too. Most of the project managers I work with have a BA background. Also you could try to transition to an "analyst/programmer" type dev role, then to a pure business analyst role, and from there into project management. –  Carson63000 Jun 2 '11 at 2:26

You might try getting certified as a project manager, some employers put great credence in such things.

Most likely, you'll need to get a development job and prove yourself to the team and to management for a couple of years before they'll trust you with the entire project.

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Things like certification make me cringe because I put more stock in being university educated, but I have thought about it... In terms of working as a developer in hopes of getting promoted, that's not usually how it works - internal devs make bad PMs and most places hire PMs externally. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 0:13
    
This may be your best shot without any experience, unfortunately. –  Jon Jun 2 '11 at 0:17
    
Thanks, I'll look into both options some more - and hope I find a dev interviewer who doesn't turn me away when I say my goals are as a PM. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 0:19
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@MHarrison: you have a BS in CS, which in no way confers project-management expertise or experience. Managing school projects is not preceived as 'real' experience. Not trying to be harsh, just realistic. Internal devs often make bad PMs because they have no training, aptitude, or love for the job. You can be the exception. If you really want a PM job right out of school, go back and get a masters in project management. –  Steven A. Lowe Jun 2 '11 at 0:23
    
@Steven: That's understandable - just frustrating to me since I took the SEng track of my CS degree and tailored it to project management. I'm hoping that putting everything up on a website to send employers is going to help me, since apparently the skills I demonstrate through interviews isn't enough. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 0:28

Everyone else put in very good advice, but here's a little personal note.

I went to school for software engineering. I spent 5 years studying the design and implementation of software systems, with a personal focus on the software development process and lifecycle, project management, process improvement, and product quality. I minored in Business Management, emphasizing leadership and organizational behavior, and Applied/Technical Communication with an emphasis on group communications and technical writing. I frequently took leadership or mentoring roles, whether they were on software development teams for courses or in various organizations that I belong to. Over the course of my five years in school, I spent a grand total of just under 2 years (about 21 months if I'm counting correctly) working as a software engineer at various locations in 3-6 month blocks.

Even with all of that backing me, there's almost no way you are put into a leadership position right out of school. I've seen two ways to become a PM or tech lead. There might be more, but these are just two things that I've personally seen:

  1. Get in with a company and move up the chain, even if your first job isn't what you want. Work hard and smart. If you are dedicated and prove your worth, you can quickly move up in experience. You have to prove yourself in the trenches before you can be a leader and call the shots. If you don't like where you are, move up to a leadership role, get some PM/lead experience, and move on to where you'll be happy.
  2. Become an expert at a technology and get in very early in a company's life or in a company with high mobility. Establish yourself as an expert and solidify yourself in an authority position, or gain the respect of teams other than your own by going above and beyond. You might do this after you're hired or come in with a good deal of background knowledge. This takes time and work, and again, you'll need to prove yourself in the trenches to the organization before they'll let you start calling the shots on your own.
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I'm open to moving up the chain. Right now I still get just enough "Wow, we really like you" interviews to keep my hope alive that I'll get a PM job right away, heh. –  MHarrison Jun 2 '11 at 1:29
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You are not going to get a PM job without experience in the real world. –  Ramhound Jun 3 '11 at 18:20

First, pluses to those telling you that you need more experience. The second thing you need is more HUMILITY. Remember that any company you are talking to got where they are WITHOUT YOU, they are not looking for someone to come in and fix what they have broken (even if that is what they need, it is NOT what they are looking for). What they are looking for is someone who wants to join their team. You have to convince them that you are the right part to fit in their machine, not that you are going to replace their machine.

The best advise you are going to get here is to READ THIS BOOK

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Why don't you apply to Microsoft? They hire PM's right out of college. At most other companies though, you're going to have a very hard time getting in. It's tough getting your first IT job period, never mind slingshotting yourself 5 years ahead into a PM role. In interviews, when they ask where you want to be in 5 years, you say a PM - acknowledging that it's a goal it may take 5 years to achieve. Why are you trying to cut to the head of the line? While it's admirable and I commend you for not selling yourself short, once you're out in the working world for a while you'll realize that you've probably bitten off more than you can chew.

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And also, the reason why mentioning you want to be a PM in a few years is coming across negatively is because you're probably not positioning it correctly. You have to appear eager to take the job they are giving you now, and not just be using it as a stepping stone. –  JSaph Jun 3 '12 at 23:08

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