Broadly, there are two different ways to move from another field into an instructional design career: the direct path and the indirect path. Both of these options are possible ways of getting into instructional design.
This is post #2 in a series about the instructional design. Read the first post, What does an instructional designer do?, for the introduction.
The direct path: masters degree or certificate
The direct way is to get your masters degree or graduate certificate in instructional design or something similar. This is the fastest and simplest route into instructional design.
I have hired people who have degrees, even ones who have little or no actual work experience. Some of those instructional designers were fabulous right out of the gate. If you have no education or training experience, this is probably the way to go.
That includes people with graphic design experience or multimedia experience. While that’s related to the development side of elearning, it doesn’t give you enough of a background in the instructional design side without getting some formal training.
I co-teach the optional portfolio course for the Elearning Instructional Design certificate program through UC-Irvine. I’m on the advisory committee for that program, and I know several people who have gotten ID jobs after completing this program. But, there are other options too. There are a number of good masters and certificate programs available in the US.
The indirect path: related fields, learn on your own
The other way into an instructional design career is the indirect route. Many of the IDs I have hired and worked with came from an education or training background. That’s my background too; I taught public school, then switched to corporate software training before finding ID. The majority of IDs I know didn’t originally set out to enter this field; they started teaching or training or writing technical documentation and found instructional design along the way. Cammy Bean wrote a whole book for The Accidental Instructional Designer (now updated for a second edition).
With the indirect path, you focus on learning on your own rather than through formal education. There are numerous free resources online: blogs, email newsletters, YouTube videos, webinars, LinkedIn posts, podcasts, and more. You can spend a little money on books–much less than a masters degree–and find your own learning path.
The indirect path can be slower and harder. You can learn on your own, but you’re ultimately going to spend as much time as you would in a graduate program. It can be especially hard to get your first job in instructional design when you don’t have any direct prior experience or formal credentials. But, it’s absolutely possible if you put the work in to learn and grow your skills.
Something in between: Academies and bootcamps
Another option is to enroll in a short-term bootcamp or academy like Tim Slade’s eLearning Designer’s Academy or IDOL Courses. These can be a way to fill in some skill gaps and ramp up faster than a graduate or certificate program. I’d consider these somewhat between the direct and indirect route. They clearly are formal training, but the depth of content is generally lower and the credentials often don’t carry as much weight.
In fact, bootcamps are fairly controversial in the field of instructional design. Some employers specifically seek out these credentials, but others immediately reject candidates who have gone through bootcamps. The quality of these academies and bootcamps can vary widely, so check the credentials of the people leading them and talk to past participants.
To be clear: I know multiple people who have been really happy with their academy education, and who have successfully gotten ID jobs or freelance work directly due to that training. But I also know that simply mentioning that I know people who are happy with their academy experience means I’m probably going to get a bunch of hate mail and negative comments.
None of these academies or bootcamps will get you a job if you don’t put in the work. You have to spend time improving your skills in order to stand out from an often-crowded field of job applicants. While an 8-10 week program legitimately can speed up part of your learning process, you can’t possibly learn everything you need in that time. You will have to keep learning on your own, even if you do get a job right away. That’s one of the reasons I put academies in a “middle ground” between formal and informal paths; you’re still going to do a lot of informal learning after you finish a bootcamp.
Transitioning from teaching or training
If you’re currently working in education or training, you probably already have a lot of the skills needed for instructional design. The exception would be if you’re not doing any writing or planning yourself, and you are only teaching things other people have developed. I found that most of my lesson planning and curriculum planning skills from when I taught were very relevant when I moved to instructional design.
When I did corporate training, the bulk of what I taught was from published books. I was fortunate to have some flexibility to stray from the published lesson plans at times, but I didn’t do a whole lot of writing while in that position.
If you teach or train somewhere where the lesson plans are provided for you, it’s going to be harder to move into instructional design. Anything you can do to create your own materials as supplements or special lessons will be helpful. I created some short job aids and extra handouts while doing corporate training. Even writing one-page handouts helps you gain experience and gives you something to talk about in an interview (and maybe show in a portfolio).
Teachers and trainers who want to change careers to instructional design have two major areas where their skills may need to be developed further. These topics are the next posts in the series.
- What Does an Instructional Designer Do?
- Getting Into Instructional Design
- Resources for Learning Instructional Design Skills
- Technology Skills for Instructional Designers
- Professional Organizations for Instructional Designers
- Is Instructional Design the Right Career?
Read all my posts about Instructional Design Careers here.
If you’re a teacher interested in switching careers, check out my posts on this transition.
- Transitioning from Teaching to Instructional Design (presentation recording)
- Teacher to Instructional Designer: Interview Questions
- Adapting Resumes from Teaching to Instructional Design
Read a Spanish translation of an older version of this post: Entrar en el campo del diseño instruccional
Originally published 5/27/2007. Updated 2/5/2019, 11/13/2019 , 3/23/2023.
Building Simulations in Twine: Points, Feedback, and Design. Wednesday, March 20, 12:00 PM EDT. Do you want to learn how to create interactive simulations? In this 90-minute hands-on workshop, you will use Twine, a free and easy-to-use software, to build a project management simulation. While we will do a quick refresher, you’ll need some basic knowledge of Twine to get the most out of this workshop. (If you participated in last year’s Learn Something New on Twine, you are all set!) Register here with Learning Rebels.
Invest In Yourself. Part of the TLDC Women in Learning & Development online conference. March 25-29. Date and time of my session TBD. Free registration is open now.
Morning Buzz: Designing and Developing Scenarios. Tuesday, April 23, 7:30-8:15 EDT. I will be facilitating an open-ended discussion about designing and developing scenarios at the Learning & HR Tech Solutions Conference.
Generating Plausible Choices and Consequences for Scenarios Using AI Tools. Thursday, April 25, 10:00 EDT. Learn to use AI tools to generate draft scenario questions, choices, and consequences. Understand how to refine prompts, recognize the limitations of AI tools, and know when to rely on AI versus manual content creation. Part of the Learning & HR Tech Solutions Conference, April 23-25 in Orlando.