Instructional Design Experience Before Your First Job

How do you get experience so you can get your first job in instructional design? Find out which nonprofits need help and how to build your portfolio.

“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?

Instructional Design Experience Before Your First Job

Volunteer work

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.

eLearning nonprofits

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.

Portfolio building

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).

Your suggestions?

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.

28 thoughts on “Instructional Design Experience Before Your First Job

  1. I liked the suggestion to apply anyways. I just graduated with my master’s and I’ve only had a summer internship and contract gig. It would certainly seem the industry craves those designers with 3+ experience, but I’ve found better results with my job hunt since I’ve focused on making my resume more ATS friendly, sharing related (but not as obvious) strengths I have as a candidate via my cover letter. Finally got an interview last week.

    1. That’s great to hear! Congrats on getting an interview. It sounds like you are on the right track with your search. I agree that almost every employer asks for 3+ years of experience, but people have to start somewhere. I hope you find a job soon!

  2. Networking is very helpful, too. I got my first ID job by getting to know the people who already worked in the department I wanted to work in. Then, when a job opened up, I was the prime candidate for the job. They knew I had the soft skills and enough of the aptitude and training to learn whatever I was missing of the hard skills.

    1. Do you see the note at the very bottom, in italics?

      Originally published 1/11/2011. Updated 12/5/2019.

      I have over 1100 posts on my blog now, some of which (like this one) are still popular even years later. I am gradually going through my archives to update old posts. If the updates are minor, I leave the original publish date. If the updates are major (like this one, which was about 40-50% new/revised), I republish it with a new date. Republishing also helps more recent subscribers get to see some older posts that they may have missed.

  3. 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.

    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.

  4. 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.. 🙂

  5. 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.

  6. 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
    ~h

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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
    http://www.astdoc.org/wsite/index.php?/Volunteer/

    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.

  10. 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. 🙂

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