I get lots of emails from people who are considering a career in instructional design. In fact, that’s why I created a free 12-lesson email course called Breaking into Instructional Design. It’s all about the career.
Keep in mind that I provide only one perspective and that it’s important to get other opinions. That said, here are common questions I’ve been asked followed by a summary 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?
What Instructional Designers Do
Although a teacher’s skills overlap with those of an instructional designer, there are gaps you will need to close. A typical career in instructional design focuses on solving workplace performance problems rather than helping students learn in a classroom environment. Instructional designers in the workplace typically design and support experiences that help people gain proficiency in work-related skills. Instructional designers in higher education typically work with faculty to put their courses online and sometimes, to ensure their courses are instructionally sound.
Will it fulfill you?
In a Learning and Development environment, you will spend much of your time behind a computer or in collaborative meetings with stakeholders, subject matter experts and team members. You may interact with sample members of the audience during the design and development process, but there is much less engagement with learners. So first, think about whether you would find this type of work fulfilling. An alternative might be to seek work as a trainer or facilitator.
Professional Development or Certificates
Your background is a good start—you have spent time thinking about how people learn and seeing the world from their perspective. To close any skills gaps, consider professional development courses or university certificate programs that provide a foundation in learning science and instructional design. See my list of Instructional Design Programs and scroll down for the certificate programs.
I created a membership community, Mastering Instructional Design, for instructional designers of all skill levels to learn from and with each other. You may be surprised at how the social learning aspect can accelerate your progress. Many members are also enrolled in academic programs and find my courses to be complementary.
I would also recommend getting familiar with eLearning production skills to build an online portfolio. If you do not want a job that involves eLearning development, demonstrate how you can solve specific workplace problems by including an analysis, design and storyboard documents in your portfolio. If you are interested in the tech side too, then add samples of your technology-based work (eLearning, learning portals, mobile learning, etc.).
Finally, think about ways you can network with others in the field. For example, join a professional association like The Learning Guild and/or ATD. ATD has chapters in most larger cities in the US. Join a LinkedIn or Facebook group: Instructional Design Newbies (my group), Instructional Designers in Education and The Learning Guild are a few that come to mind.
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, written and spoken language. In learning professions however, we are also concerned with how people retain information, improve their skills and transfer them to new situations.
Depending on your background, you may already possess many of the skills you need in instructional design. But you will need to understand how people learn and the best practices based on learning science. When someone has a Masters degree in a field that overlaps with instructional design, I suggest looking into professional development or university level certificate programs rather than going for another Masters. Then, focus on building a portfolio. Of course, going back to graduate school is a personal decision based on your financial situation and available time.
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. See the rest of this article for more resources of interest.
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 three strategies for these situations: create a portfolio, get some volunteer work, 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 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 throughout this article for portfolio resources.
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 a learning journey, meaningful and interactive scenarios or performance support resources.
As to networking, there’s nothing like meeting with other professionals in person (or virtually), through associations like ATD, The Learning Guild, and ISPI. If there isn’t a chapter 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 Finding a Job in Instructional Design for advice on getting a job in instructional design and
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 are several years old, so technical information may need to be updated.
- Building Your eLearning Portfolio by Mike Taylor
- Instructional Design Portfolio Resources by Christy Tucker
- What to Include in an eLearning Portfolio by Trina Rimmer
- 10 Tips to Help You Build Your eLearning Portfolio by Melissa Milloway
What instructional design graduate program do you recommend?
I’m not in a position to know which program will work for your goals, so I suggest you look through my list of graduate and certificate programs. It also includes a few undergraduate programs too For any program, check that the curriculum has the career focus you’re looking for: higher education, workplace (corporate) Learning & Development, or K-12 ed tech. Note that Learning Design and Instructional Design programs tend to focus on workplace training and Educational Technology degrees tend to focus on schools and school systems.
Also, 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, do your research to find out if:
- There are graduates that you can speak to about the program
- They provide assistance finding employment in your field after graduation
- Particular industries hire their graduates. Industry-oriented programs is discussed in this podcast episode: Educating the New Instructional Designer.
Also, consider joining one of the larger instructional design LinkedIn groups to ask members if they would recommend the programs you are considering. Most people in this field are incredibly helpful and will recommend their favorites.
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?
I would recommend a certificate that focuses on instructional design or learning experience design. See my list of programs and scroll down for the certificate programs. I’m sorry that the list is US-based, but many programs are virtual anyway.
Short professional courses may be sufficient effective if you have experience or background knowledge in the field already. I also offer a way to take professional development courses while learning along with others in a membership community. For more on this, see Mastering Instructional Design.
Is there is an online platform for instructional designers to use for showing portfolios? I’m using free authoring tools.
There are many portfolio sites for graphic designers, but they only allow you to add graphics and videos. You need something that will let you view eLearning. Therefore, you need a site for your portfolio and a host to serve up your eLearning.
Inexpensive Sites: Some less expensive sites where people are hosting portfolios include WordPress (their hosting or your own), Square Space, Padlet, Wix and Weebly.
Hosts for eLearning: Then place your eLearning and other files on a storage platform and link to them. Storage platforms include Amazon S3, Google Cloud and GitHub.
FTP: If you have a website, you can also upload courses published for the web using FTP (a protocol for uploading files to a website). If you don’t know how to do this, your web host should be able to help. For anyone using Articulate 360, here’s a forum thread on how to set up Amazon S3. Also, if you use WordPress and want to upload directly to your site, use the eLearning Freak plug-in for SCORM files.
If you want to find out more about a career in instructional design, download my quick read eBook below.