“How do you get experience in the field so you can get your first ID job?” That’s a recurring questions I hear from those trying to start their instructional design careers.
It feels like a catch-22: you can’t get any experience until you get a job, and you can’t get a job without experience. People who built portfolios as part of a masters or graduate certificate program are generally in a better position, but they may need experience too.
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 instructional design experience before getting your first job. Working with a nonprofit organization whose cause you care about is 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 or museums may be interested in your volunteer work. Open source projects often need training and documentation for their applications. Many nonprofits need help creating onboarding materials for their volunteers.
VolunteerMatch lets you search for volunteer opportunities. There isn’t much for elearning or training, but you can search for virtual opportunities and may find something relevant.
The goal of Designers for Learning is help new instructional designers “gain experience for good.” They offer self-paced courses, projects, and design challenges to support social missions.
Learn Appeal is a UK-based charity with a need for volunteers to help build elearning.
Another volunteering option is e-learningforkids.org, which distributes free elearning globally.
Your portfolio doesn’t have to contain only real projects for real clients though. You can create samples on your own. I have 30+ ideas for elearning portfolio samples that don’t require much specialized knowledge (or can easily be researched online).
The weekly E-Learning Heroes Challenges are a good place for inspiration and portfolio samples. Sharing your work in that community can also earn recognition from your peers and connections with employers.
Apply to jobs anyway
One other note: If you meet all the requirements of a job opening except for the years of experience, go ahead and apply anyway. A solid portfolio will show your skills, even if you don’t have the preferred experience. That’s especially true for your first job.
Job openings generally describe an ideal candidate. Sometimes, it’s a completely unrealistic wish list. When employers can’t find the purple squirrels they ask for, they usually become more flexible and hire someone who is a partial match.
In fact, one company analyzed thousands of job postings and resumes. They found that people who met only 50% of the job requirements were just as likely to get an interview as people who met 90% of the requirements. There are reasons to be skeptical of their exact numbers (it’s a single company’s database, they don’t share their algorithms, and there’s some weirdness in the data), but the general point seems solid. It’s OK to apply to jobs that are a little of a stretch, especially if you think you can learn to do everything required (even if you can’t do it all today).
If you recently became an instructional designer, especially if you switched from 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?
Originally published 1/11/2011. Updated 12/5/2019.