Answers To Instructional Design Career Questions

lettersI’m no career counselor, but I do get many emails from people who are considering a career in instructional design.
I realized it might be helpful to share these with those of you who have similar questions.

I often qualify my responses with the fact that I offer only one opinion and to be sure to ask others. If you’re an experienced designer, please share how you would respond to any of these questions in the Comments below. Now, here are common questions I receive and a composite of the answers I’ve given.

I’m an experienced teacher but would like to transition into a career in instructional design. Do you think I can find a job?

Although there is some overlap, I’d say that a career in the design of learning experiences is quite different from one as a classroom teacher. Unless you are seeking a job as a trainer, a typical career in instructional design focuses on designing materials, support and experiences to guide learning rather than interacting directly with learners. Ideally, learning designers do interact with sample members of the audience during design and development, but it is to a much lesser extent. So first, think about whether you would find this type of work fulfilling.

Although your background is a good start—because you have spent much time thinking about how people learn—I would look into professional short courses or university certificate programs that provide a foundation in cognitive psychology, learning theory and instructional design (analysis, design and evaluation). See my list of Instructional Design Programs. It includes graduate degrees and certificate programs. Also, check out Julie Dirksen’s book, Design for How People Learn to get a sense of this.

I would also recommend getting familiar with multimedia design (rudimentary sketching, prototyping, storyboarding and scripting) and production tools. Depending on what you are seeking, jobs for workplace training may require familiarity or competence in this area. Finally, stay current with the latest trends in social media and newer technologies. In some ways, our field is changing quickly.

I have a Masters degree in Communication. Should I go back to school and get a second Masters in Instructional Design?

Similar to communication, a big part of instructional design involves knowing how to get a message across in visual and written or spoken language. In workplace learning, however, we are also concerned with how people retain information and skills and transfer them to new situations.

Depending on your background, you may already possess many of the skills needed, but you will need to understand the psychology and theories of how people learn. When someone has a Masters degree in a field that overlaps with instructional design, I suggest looking into professional or university level certificate programs for learning this. Of course, going back to graduate school is a personal decision based on your financial situation and available time. You may find relevant information to help you make your decision in the yearly salary survey from the eLearning Guild (available to those with a free membership).

If you would like more information on starting a career in instructional design, you can sign up for my free 12-lesson course on this topic: Breaking into Instructional Design.

How can I get my first job in instructional design? All the listings ask for 3 years of experience.

It must be very frustrating to finish school and then find it difficult to get a job. I recommend two strategies for these situations: create a portfolio and increase the time you spend networking. A portfolio will demonstrate how your skills will benefit the organization where you are interviewing. Use the work you did in graduate school. Offer to create a training program on a volunteer basis for  for a local nonprofit. Or create short lessons on noncontroversial topics that are relevant to workplace learning, such as team work, technical security tips or writing business emails. See the links in the next answer for articles about portfolios.

If your finished products do not look professional, you can show design plans, prototypes and storyboards. Make sure you go beyond conventional page turners (if developing eLearning) to create something innovative, such as a plan to provide spaced learning, meaningful and interactive scenarios or performance support resources.

As to networking, there’s nothing like meeting with other professionals in person, through chapters of the ASTD or other groups. If there isn’t one in your area, perhaps you can start a Meetup. Network online by joining one of the larger LinkedIn groups for instructional designers and stay active. Create a personal learning network through social media (you can connect with me on Twitter via @elearningcoach). Also, listen to this interview with Joe Fournier for advice on getting a job in instructional design.

I went for an interview for an instructional design position, because I’ve been developing training for years. The company wants a portfolio. What does that mean?

Similar to an artist’s portfolio, the hiring company wants to see examples of what you’ve done in the field. Pull together the best of your training plans, design documents, storyboards, manuals, and anything you have that shows how you shine.

Here are four relevant articles or series about portfolios. Some of these are several years old, so please take that into consideration and find updated information as you need it.

What instructional design program graduate program do you recommend?

There is no way for me to know which programs are best, so I suggest you look through my list of graduate and certificate programs, both online and on-site. For any program, check that the full curriculum seems up-to-date and includes a foundation in cognitive psychology or learning theory as well as practical skills. Once you find several programs that may suit you, consider joining one of the larger LinkedIn groups for our field and asking others if they would recommend the programs you are considering. Most people in this field are awesome and will recommend their favorites too!

I’m looking into getting a certificate in Adult Education. Is that the best route for a career in instructional design? And what about those short professional courses?

Perhaps you should look into a program that is completely geared to instructional design, as the program you’re looking into doesn’t have much focus there.  There are many certificate programs. See my list of programs and  scroll down for the certificate ones. I’m sorry that the list is US-based, but I’m guessing you can find programs in your country too. I think the short professional courses are effective if you have some type of experience or background knowledge in the field already. This is just my opinion. Compare the offerings closely and consider your regional job market and your skill set.

I’m a student and would like to know if there is an online platform for instructional designers to use for showing portfolios? I’m using free authoring tools.

I have not yet seen a platform for instructional design platforms, but WordPress, a free content management system, might be your best choice. You will need to pay for hosting, though. First, find out what format your free authoring tools will publish too. If it’s an HTML format, you can easily display this on the web. If it’s SWF format (Flash files) the easiest approach if using WordPress is to get a plug-in, which adds functionality to the application. Another idea is to do something simple in Powerpoint and upload to SlideShare. Of course, without the interactions, much can be lost.

As to hosting, I have not seen a site that allows students to host, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. There are inexpensive hosts, such as Hostgator or Blue Host, that have low monthly plans. Your university might actually provide a space for doing this. I would run all of these same questions by your professors to see what might be offered there.

Does anyone know of an inexpensive site for hosting instructional design portfolios?

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  1. RC says

    I’m a big fan of Weebly. You can embed any code you want, in particular swf’s and YouTube videos. You can also put files on there that visitors can download. A lot easier to use than WordPress, free for basic features (which includes pretty much everything), very nice customizable templates, and if you do want premium it’s affordable too.

    Thanks for the article. I’m a teacher myself back in school getting a degree in ID. I’ll be looking for a job myself in a year.

  2. Connie Malamed says

    Thanks for letting everyone know about Weebly, RC. I’m assuming you meant it is an application people can use for portfolios. Hope your enjoying your ID program.

  3. Jennifer says

    Another possibility for showing portfolio materials is Foliotek. It doesn’t require any programming skills, is professional looking and easy to customize, accepts a wide variety of files including PowerPoint, is low cost, and (at the time of this post) offers a free trial period.

  4. Shundalen Williams says

    Hello Connie,

    This article has answered almost every question I have had since starting my graduate degree in Instructional Design and Technology. I particularly drew interest in your answer pertaining to getting started into the Instructional Design field by creating a portfolio.You spoke about volunteering and it gave me an idea of a volunteer project. Thank you for creating this blog and turning on the light bulb in my head. I look forward to reading more of your blog entries and I am adding you to my RSS feed.

  5. Annette Davis says

    Hi Connie – I appreciate the insight you provided here about transferring from a classroom teacher to instructional design. As technology continues to find its way into the classroom more teachers are designing lessons online and flipping classrooms rapidly. In my studies of instructional design, I think it is the technology tools and androgogy that make the comparison a difference between the two. I can’t wait to read your book!


  1. […] I’m no career counselor, but I do get many emails from people who are considering a career in instructional design.I realized it might be helpful to share these with those of you who have similar questions.I often qualify my responses with the fact that I offer only one opinion and to be sure to ask others. If you’re an experienced designer, please share how you would respond to any of these questions in the Comments below. Now, here are common questions I receive and a composite of the answers I’ve given.  […]

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