Instructional Design Experience Before Your First Job

One of the recurring questions I hear from those trying to start their instructional design careers is “How do you get experience in the field so you can get your first ID job?”

It feels like a catch-22 for many people trying to get that first ID job: you can’t get any experience until you get a job, and you can’t get a job without experience. For people with a masters degree or certificate, it’s less challenging, especially for those who built portfolios as part of their educational programs. But what about teachers, trainers, or technical writers who are learning on their own and want to demonstrate how their existing skills can transfer to ID? If you’re someone looking to transition from another field into instructional design, what do you create for your portfolio to prove your skills?

One common recommendation is look for volunteer work to get some experience before getting your first job. That’s general advice that would apply to pretty much any field, but it’s especially helpful if you’re looking for an authentic project to create. If you can find a nonprofit organization with a cause you care about it would be a win-win for everyone. You get some experience and a project for your portfolio; a nonprofit gets some free content to further their cause. Local historical societies, museums, or unemployment services offices may be interested in your volunteer work, as might an open source project looking to educate people about their application. Sites like OER Commons and accept content, so you could create something and have it used by real people.

The LINGOs Global Giveback Competition has been another option I’ve often recommended in the past. This is an annual competition for learning in non-governmental organizations. They’re always looking for volunteer instructional designers.

Update 1/17/2014: The goal of Designers for Learning is to pair instructional design students with non-profits who need their skills. They offer courses with mentors as “service learning” where you give back while you learn ID skills.

Update 12/6/2015: KeelWorks has opportunities for volunteer interns. These are part time positions that can generally be done from anywhere.

Update 5/24/2016: If you’re mostly looking for ways to build your portfolio, the weekly E-Learning Heroes Challenges are a good place for inspiration. Sharing your work in that community can also earn recognition from your peers.

Update 11/29/2016: Learn Appeal is a UK-based charity with a need for volunteers to help build elearning.

If you have recently started as an instructional designer, especially if you switched from teaching/training/another field, how did you prove your skills? If you hire instructional designers, what kind of work from candidates has impressed you? Do you know of any organizations looking for volunteers?

22 thoughts on “Instructional Design Experience Before Your First Job

  1. I always get your updates on my phone so rarely make it here to your blog but I just want to say I really appreciate your postings and links. Wonderful stuff! I’m just starting out in ID and find your blog to be incredibly encouraging and helpful. Thanks for the work you do on it! Brenda in Toronto. 🙂

  2. Gaining experience before getting your first ID job?
    For teachers, trainers or technical writers can offer support to the ID team on certain projects within their existing organization to gain solid experience before landing an ID job. A consistent flow of assignments would help them hone their skills and gain valuable knowledge.

    The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), which focuses on the professional development of those in the training and organizational development fields is seeking volunteers

    1. Most teachers in US public school districts don’t have the luxury of working with an “ID team” in their current jobs, although you’re right that trainers and technical writers may be able to. Schools just don’t generally hire instructional designers; it isn’t part of the educational model.

      Glad to see that your local ASTD in Orange County, CA is giving people an opportunity to volunteer with real development projects. The call for volunteers from the national ASTD is just about publishing articles and speaking at conferences. Those are great opportunities for someone experienced, of course, but not a good place to get started.

  3. Thanks for posing this question on your blog. I have to say that from when I first started my MS Instructional Designer program, this very subject has kept me up at night.

    Naturally, its a mutually beneficial relationship working with non-profits, but I’d like to note that in reality IDers do still need to pay the bills. Also, the opportunity cost may be time lost not doing paid work, or even time lost in studying.

    Related to your discussion, I am also interested in hiring practices. Have a look at the ASTD jobs website. It seems that most ID positions are asking for solid development and/or industry experience – not really instructional design skills and the type of stuff a few non-profit gigs would provide.

    Who out there hires fresh graduates and what does entry level ID work involve?

    1. Kevin, talk to the career center at the school where you did your masters. Where have they had luck placing people from the program?

      Nobody denies the need to pay the bills, but I think we’re all looking at the reality of the situation: There just aren’t many “entry level” positions out there. Almost nobody hires fresh graduates or career changers with no experience.

      Someone once commented here that “There are lots of folks out there coming out of Masters programs that have no experience. They are as qualified as those who have no Masters and no experience.”

      I don’t agree with that statement, but that perception is out there, and you do have to battle it.

      Hopefully you already have a portfolio from your masters program, which puts you in a better position than career changers. Volunteer work would give you something to show how you can work with SMEs and clients. It also breaks up any stretches of unemployment on your resume, which in this economy is pretty common.

      Yes, you have to do the volunteer work on top of whatever “day job” you’re doing to pay the bills. I know that’s hard, but it’s not impossible.

  4. I don’t always have the time to look through all of the nuances of a resume, but a portfolio ALWAYS gets me. I thought I didn’t have time to create a portfolio when I first started. The other thing was that I didn’t have a job so how could I create a portfolio? Really, I don’t care a great deal about prior jobs if your portfolio shows that you have talent. If you lack talent and have had 15 jobs, I still will not hire based on the experience. I care about what you can do now and examples that show me you can do what you are aiming to do in addition to what I (and my client) need you to do.

  5. I appreciate Robert’s post. As a recent MA graduate in ID without experience, but with a portfolio… makes me feel a bit more hopeful!
    Thank you Robert and Christy

  6. As a former high school teach turned Senior Instructional Designer, my experiences dealing with high school students have proved to be valuable. Adults are big kids and when you design, it is important to design for all end users. I have taken several id courses along with authoring tools training, but believe my degrees in education are the best tools for anyone who designs learning materials.

    1. I appreciate Traci’s response. I am a current high school teacher toying with the idea of a career change to ID. Any other ideas or information that anyone has on this type of career shift would be so welcome! (What do you miss about teaching? What do you definitely not miss? Pros/cons of ID vs. teaching?)
      Thanks for writing the blog! I find it very useful.

      1. I’m much happier as an ID than as a teacher, partly because I’m introverted enough that being “on stage” all the time is draining for me. I enjoy teaching and being in front of a class, but I’m happier when I only do that occasionally rather than every day. I also really like working with adult learners.

        If you really love designing curriculum, developing lesson plans, and writing, ID may be a good fit. If you really get your energy by interacting with people in a classroom, ID might not be your best choice.

  7. This has been very helpful! I am a teacher who is seeking to gain experience in the field so that I can change field and I’ve been seeking the answer to this very question. Thank you much!

    1. I have just read your original blog and updates and have also greatly benefited from all the links and discussion. I’m in the same position, Daphnee. I really need to build my portfolio.. 🙂

    1. Several of the options listed above are not region-specific and can likely be joined from Canada. Designers for Learning is international, as is the eLearning Heroes community. It looks like Learn Appeal has people in both the US and UK, so I would guess Canada would be fine. You’d have to ask Thomas Garrod about KeelWorks; I don’t know if he has any restrictions on interns from Canada. KeelWorks is the least likely to take someone from Canada since he does internships, and Canadian law about internships is quite different from US law.

  8. Hi,
    My name is Fatima and I am a completely new to ID as I am a fresh undergrad and currently working towards finishing an elearning certificate. So I have no work experience whatsoever.
    I have been very overwhelmed with what I can do to get some experience and this post has been very helpful in guiding me.
    I would appreciate more expert advice from you especially on how I should strengthen my skills provided I have mostly experience from courses I took.

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