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If you’re newer to the field of project management or considering a career change, you might be wondering why it seems like project managers do so much administrative work.

In many organizations, it falls to the PM to take notes, create meeting invitations, and even order catering or clean up meeting rooms after a meeting or strategy session.

It would be totally fair if you were wondering where an admin role ends and a PM role begins—and if they are even connected. It’s clear that someone has to do these things, but why is it often the project manager, and what can we do about it when it really shouldn’t be?

What Is A Project Administrator?

A project administrator is someone who is responsible for the administrative aspect of a project. This person may be tasked with the following: 

  • Updating the project plan
  • Keeping the project management tool up to date
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Project documentation (including meeting notes, agendas, follow up, and other communications)
  • Archiving project artifacts 
  • Sending or paying invoices and managing the budget 
  • Providing support to the project manager

A project administrator is not necessarily the same thing as a junior project manager or project coordinator. While, like many job titles, these are often used interchangeably, a project administrator can be a career path on its own.

And just because someone is in an administrative role in a projectized organization doesn’t necessarily mean they want to become a project manager.

What Is A Project Manager?

Project managers initiate, execute, and complete projects across various industries.

Since we’re focusing on digital project management here, a project manager might lead a team of designers, developers, copywriters, and user experience professionals to create a website, landing page, series of blog posts, software, or advertising. 

As there are many different types of digital projects, a wide variety of job descriptions and even titles can be used for a project manager in our industry. You may see them called digital producers, team leads, or even at the higher levels, directors of delivery.

These terms all generally mean the same thing. This individual is responsible for the overall delivery of the project. A project manager:

  • Determines the overall project scope
  • Sets or manages the budget
  • Oversees the project team
  • Plans the communication cadence
  • Sends status updates to the project sponsors, clients, or other stakeholders
  • Monitors the project’s progress against the project plan
  • Prevents scope creep and writes change orders
  • Takes responsibility for risk management
  • Closes out the project on completion
  • Holds post mortems or retrospectives
  • Ensures project materials are archived

Read more about the responsibilities of project managers here (or listen to the podcast!).

2 Key Differences Between Project Administrators & Project Managers

Feel like you’re stuck doing all the admin work for your projects and you’re not sure where you fall on the project manager vs. project administrator spectrum? These two key differences can help you better understand where you are or want to go.

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PMs focus on overall strategy, administrators are more tactical

Project managers do or direct anything that needs to be done to make a successful project. 

They may be responsible for selecting or onboarding the project team, creating the scope with the client and business development, managing the budget throughout the entire project life cycle, and all project communication and documentation.

They’ll lead the project kickoff meeting and status updates and make sure the project is properly closed, and all artifacts are filed away correctly at the end of the project.

This is a big responsibility, and driving the overall strategy, problem-solving, and handling administrative tasks can lead to work overload or burnout. This is why most complex projects, like building a large website or a new digital product, may have more than one project manager or project administrator to handle all the work.

In a large, in-house digital team or agency, you might see anywhere from 2-10 project managers, some project administrators or coordinators, and a head of project management or director to whom all of these pros report.

Project administrators provide administrative support to a project. They have excellent organizational skills and should be able to take ownership of tasks like scheduling meetings, reserving conference rooms, setting up project management software, and assigning tasks to team members.

They may also follow up on overdue tasks, create status reports, and help team members coordinate with each other or clients.

But, here’s the rub: Anyone in a project manager position can get pigeonholed into doing certain administrative project activities simply because they are looked at as the least important team member. 

In some digital teams, it is believed that it is part of the project manager’s role to act as the team’s admin. Even if this is not the case and it is not in your job description, you may end up taking on this work because it feels like no one else will.

Experience and qualifications

Experience and qualifications are places that project managers can differ from project administrators. In today’s job market, finding a role that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree is possible, but you’re more likely to need one if you are looking for a project manager role.

A really senior PM or the head of a project management office (PMO) might require a master’s degree as well. But that’s not to say that you can’t find a role and get incredible experience in the field without a four-year degree.

Project managers may look to gain certifications to signal that they have the right experience for their role. In the digital world, this might look like being certified as a Scrum master or getting an agile credential from the Project Management Institute (PMI). In other industries, the PMP is the gold standard.

For project administrators, project management certifications can be helpful when trying to break into the industry or when trying to supplement transferable skills.

Entry-level project management certifications include the CAPM, Google’s Project Management Certificate, or even Scrum Alliance’s Certified Scrum Master (CSM). These programs have no prerequisites other than participating in the required education hours before sitting for the exam.

2 Similarities Between Project Administrators & Managers

Keeping things organized

The project manager and the project administrator both play a role in keeping things organized day to day. 

They’ll work together to plan resource management, oversee and document spending in the project budget, and generally work to keep files and project schedules up to date. They may share the responsibility of updating project plans and tasks in tools like Asana, Trello, or Workfront.

Job security and career development

Whether you are a project manager or a project administrator, both career paths within the discipline of project management offer job security and career development opportunities.

Although today we’re seeing lots of layoffs in the technology industry, skilled project managers and project administrators will always find work. 

According to PMI’s talent gap study (2017-2027), by 2027, employers will need nearly 88 million individuals in project management-oriented roles worldwide.

What does this mean for you as an experienced or aspiring project management professional? It means this is a good time to start or grow a career. Not only is this an in-demand skill, but it can also be lucrative. 

If you’re working in a related field and looking for a career change, it’s possible to leverage the skills you already have to be successful as a project manager or project administrator.

And when it comes to career development, adding certifications and growing project management skills and soft skills like communication skills, time management skills, or leadership skills can help you continue to level up and take on bigger and more complex projects—which can also lead to increased salary and career mobility.

The Admin Trap: A Note About Invisible Work

When thinking about what it means to be a good project manager (or admin), you may picture someone who takes responsibility for whatever needs to be done. Working long hours, multitasking, and ensuring the project’s success.

Some things like taking notes, ordering catering, remembering birthdays, etc., are very important to the team but are not directly impacting the project’s success. If these important things are done well, they’re rarely celebrated. 

However, if the ball is dropped somewhere, everyone notices. A hungry team might be cranky, and the person whose birthday wasn’t recognized may have hurt feelings and more. This work is sometimes called invisible work—and while someone has to do it, it doesn’t always need to be the project manager.

In many organizations, especially where project managers are predominantly female, it may be expected that the PM takes on not only the administrative work for the project but also the load for all of the invisible work for the team. Remembering to order a birthday cake for the lead developer or that the designer is allergic to nuts takes time, effort, and energy.

Worth Checking Out: Dark Stories, Shared Light: A Women’s Month Panel Discussion

How To Make Sure You Aren’t Stuck Doing Invisible Work

You're not alone if you read the last few paragraphs and found yourself nodding along. Research from Harvard Business Review found that women get 44% more requests than men to volunteer for “non-promotable” tasks at work. 

Non-promotable tasks fall under the category of invisible work and benefit the organization but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement.

The 2022 Women in the Workplace Report from Leanin.org and McKinsey explains, “Compared to men at their level, women leaders do more to support employee well-being and promote DEI—work that improves retention and employee satisfaction but is not formally awarded in most companies. Spending time and energy on work that isn’t recognized makes it harder for women leaders to advance, and may partly explain why they are more burned out.”

So what can you do as a project manager or project administrator when you’re expected, or worse, volunteered to do this invisible work and you see that it is not being shared evenly across the team? Here are a few things you can try.

Tactic 1: Just Assign It

You can take the initiative to start assigning things out. No explanations are necessary. 

For example: “Greg, can you take notes for this meeting?” If Greg looks confused or stunned, you can say, “I take them most of the time, and I’d like to focus today on facilitating and listening for my priorities. I think it would be great if we assigned new people to each meeting. You get to go first!”

Another example: If you’re asked to run out to pick up treats for a birthday celebration and the only time you have between calls is 25 minutes for you to eat lunch, consider taking a glance at calendars and assigning the task to the person with the fewest meetings that day.

Tactic 2: Be Transparent

If you want to be very transparent, and you know your team is receptive, you can reset all the expectations at once by announcing at the start of a meeting, or end of a meeting if something else needs to be scheduled or any time the issue gets raised, “I know I’ve always done ______, but I can’t continue doing that as well as my own job duties. I think if we equally distribute all of this work, it won’t be a burden on any one person.” 

And if anyone asks you, “Why?” you can always make them squirm by cheerfully asking, “Is there a problem with taking on some of this communal admin work?”

Tactic 3: Recruit a Few Allies

Another way to ensure that the PM isn’t treated as the office’s admin is to recruit a few allies to call it out when they see it. It can be as simple as: “Pam always takes notes. I’ll take them this time, and then maybe Gus can do it next time. It’s not really fair otherwise.” Or “Why is everyone assuming Gail will set up this meeting?”

FAQs About Project Administrators

What’s The Difference Between Project Administrator & Assistant Project Manager?

In many organizations, the titles project administrator and assistant project manager are used interchangeably, but they are two distinctly different roles. A project administrator focuses on the overall project administrative work, and an assistant project manager may share responsibilities with the project manager or manage smaller projects for the organization (and in some cases, they may do both).

What’s The Difference Between Project Coordinator & Project Administrator?

Project coordinators may be more entry-level project managers and provide project support for an organization on smaller projects. A project administrator is a professional who focuses on the administrative needs of an organization’s projects. In some cases, they may be very experienced professionals who have chosen to grow their careers in this profession.

Next Steps

So, to recap, project manager does not mean admin, or Default Note Taker, or Doer Of Stuff No One Else Feels Like Doing. As a project manager, you don’t have to take on all the admin tasks for the project—just the ones that make the most sense. 

Speak up, draw your boundaries, and hold others accountable. Do it on your terms. Once your boundaries are drawn, use the tactics outlined (just assign it, be transparent, and recruit some allies to speak up) and get yourself on the right track. And another reminder: if you see someone stuck in this role, speak up for them, too!

Make sure to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager Newsletter for more on project management roles & responsibilities.

Patrice Embry
By Patrice Embry

Patrice Embry of Project Menagerie is a freelance digital project manager and Certified Scrum Master. After 25 years in the field, she has been fortunate to work for agencies, corporations, and everything in between. Her clients have spanned far and wide across verticals: pharmaceutical, finance, construction, ecommerce, race cars, you name it. Her client roster includes LeBron James, ExxonMobil, Merck HCP Education, Lundbeck Pharma, ACLU, Anti-Defamation League, GS1, SEI Investments, Hamline University, and many more.

Marissa Taffer
By Marissa Taffer

Marissa Taffer, PMP, A-CSM is the founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting. In her consulting practice, she helps organizations with project management processes and tools. She also serves as a fractional project manager supporting digital agencies, marketing departments, and other consultancies.