To be a doctor, you need a specialty, a PhD, and a residency — in that order. To be a lawyer, you need a law degree and to pass the bar. To become an instructional designer, well... the path isn't as clear.
Some pursue a career in instructional design directly out of college, while many more become IDs later in life after a first career in education or another field. Many instructional designers stumble on the field completely by chance.
Although the demand for IDs is increasing, so is awareness of the field, which means it’s becoming more competitive to land a job. Whether you’re just starting out or pondering a mid-career change, we’ll tell you what you need to know to get started on your journey towards instructional design.
What to Study to Become an Instructional Designer
While there are a growing number of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs and certifications for instructional design, you don’t necessarily need to earn a dedicated degree to be competitive in this job market.
We polled over 150 IDs to find out how factors like education and experience affected their salaries. We found nothing to support the idea that a dedicated master’s degree in instructional design leads to higher earning potential. Even more surprisingly, we found no correlation between education level and salary level at all! IDs with a PhD didn’t have greater incomes than those with just a master’s or even a bachelor’s. That said, 91% of the survey respondents had at least a bachelor’s degree, and 71% of those respondents had a master’s or a PhD, which suggests that higher education, in any subject, is a prerequisite for most ID jobs.
Download our full Instructional Design Salary Report here.
Does this mean you shouldn’t pursue a master’s in instructional design? Not necessarily. If you are trying to break into the field and don’t yet have a master’s in another subject, then you may choose to study instructional design to increase your attractiveness as a potential hire. Instructional design students also have access to internship opportunities, alumni connections, and other departmental resources that can put them on the fast-track for landing a job.
However, if you already have a master’s degree in some other subject, it’s not necessary to go back to school to get a dedicated instructional design degree. Many IDs studied other subjects before moving into the field. Education is the most common background, but people enter the field from many different disciplines, including journalism, computer science, and even French.
If you’re making a career change to instructional design, a higher ed certificate program or micromaster's degree in instructional design is a less expensive and time-intensive alternative to a full master’s program. You can learn important theory, background, and skills while still working full-time elsewhere.
Essential Instructional Design Qualifications
No matter what educational path you choose, to get a job you will need to prove you have a strong understanding of the major theory, skills, and tools that IDs use in their daily work.
Every aspiring ID needs to understand the underlying frameworks and theories of instructional design. These are the foundations that guide the decisions that IDs make on a daily basis. They include Bloom’s Taxonomy and the ADDIE Model, as well as other models like Merrill and Gagne.
It’s equally important to understand the cognitive science psychology behind how and why we learn. This includes both umbrella theories of behavior, like constructivism, cognitivism and behaviorism, and more specific learning theories, like discovery-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and situated cognition theory.
ID jobs are elastic. On any given day, IDs may find themselves developing courses and curriculums, researching new initiatives, and interviewing experts. As a result, IDs need a number of different skills to do their job effectively.
IDs need strong writing and communication skills so that they can effectively convey messages and objectives. They also need problem-solving skills, organizational skills, and interpersonal skills to manage projects, work with subject matter experts, and manage teams. And some of the best IDs are creative and able to innovate new approaches for presenting information.
Other specific skills that aren’t essential but useful include coding ability, familiarity with graphic design, and video development skills.
Most entry-level IDs are expected to be able to design and build e-learning experiences using the most common industry tools. These include course creation softwares, like Articulate 360, Adobe Captivate and Lectora, and design tools, like Adobe Creative Cloud.
Landing an Instructional Design Position
Because so many people take unorthodox paths into the instructional design field, entry-level jobs are less concerned with your academic qualifications than they are with your skills and experience. To land a job or even an interview, you’ll need a well-thought-out resume and a comprehensive portfolio.
Even if you’ve never held an ID job before, you can beef up your experience level by volunteering for learning- and development-related tasks and projects in your current organization. Think about the skills listed in the section above and how you can demonstrate them in the confines of your current position. Alternatively, consider volunteering your services to do ID work for local organizations.
Tailor your resume to each job you apply for by highlighting your relevant experience and skills. Create an objective statement that showcases your career objectives and the unique strengths you can bring to the position.
If you lack on-the-job experience, nail your portfolio. Your portfolio showcases your abilities and talents at creating learning materials. You don’t need past ID work experience to create one either. Design your own learning artifacts based on subjects you already know a lot about. For each project include a detailed description of the choices you made and the tools you used.
There Are Many Paths to Instructional Design
There are many different roads to becoming an ID. To illustrate this, we reached out to three established instructional designers and asked them to share their unique career paths.
The Direct Path
Kyle Hickman always knew that he wanted to work in education. In college, he landed a part-time job at his university’s online learning and development department. He worked directly with the ID team and quickly realized that this was the career path he wanted to pursue.
After getting a Bachelor’s in Social Science, Hickman went on to earn a Master’s in Instructional & Educational Technology. He became a full-time instructional designer at his university and worked at several other educational institutions before taking a job as the manager of learning and development at a private company.
Hickman advises that prospective IDs reach out to local ID departments to learn more: “For those who don't quite know where they want to land, but have an interest in curriculum or technology, I encourage you to reach out to an online course department at a nearby institution and ask if a team member would be open to a discussion about their day-to-day.”
From Teaching to Instructional Design
Nicole Papaioannou Lugara double-majored in communications and English as an undergrad, before pursuing a Master’s and then a PhD in English. She worked as an adjunct professor and a senior writing consultant but became burned out by the long hours and low pay. Then, she discovered instructional design.
“The first time I heard the term instructional designer was when I applied for an instructional design job,” says Lugara. “I lit up! It described so many things I loved doing and knew I was good at— writing, creating curriculum, designing for online learning, coaching people to get information out of them (SMEs). It felt like kismet.”
Lugara now works as a freelance instructional design consultant for major companies like Netflix and Allegiant. Her advice: “Focus most of your energy on the things you love doing and want to be doing. I like to think about who I want to work with and what problems I want to help solve. That guides what I do next.”
From School Administrator to Instructional Design
Dr. Robin Sargent also started her career in an entirely different field. She earned a Master’s in Biblical and Theological Studies but couldn’t find a job outside of the field of religion. So she began working as a university librarian at Shorter University. From there, she became an academic advisor and was finally promoted to assistant dean of students. When the university decided to move their adult studies program online, she volunteered to become the online academic programs manager. “I just became obsessed,” says Sargent, “I thought, man, this is it. All I want to do is just build courses online all the time.”
After doing some digging, Sargent realized that there was a name for this job: instructional designer. She made the leap to corporate ID and worked for several different organizations before deciding to go solo. She created her own creative learning design company called IDOL courses. She also runs IDOL courses Academy, which is a trade school for instructional design and online learning.
Tap into the Instructional Design Community to Further Your Career
As with any job, the best thing you can do is network. Talk to those in the field. IDs love sharing information online, so there are tons of great resources, including very active Reddit and Facebook groups. Join. Get advice, ask questions, and absorb the wisdom of more experienced IDs.
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