Why I Think Instructional Design is a Great Career Path for a PhD

When I entered a PhD program in Philosophy in the fall of 2007, I had a vague idea of what life would look like post-PhD. Today, I’m working in a field that my 2007 self didn’t even realize existed, so it’s been a wild (but fun) ride.

I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t going to pursue a faculty career, for a few reasons. First, I was in an unranked program with a spotty placement record. Second, humanities departments are in a tenuous spot these days, so it seemed like pursuing a faculty career posed a pretty big risk that I wasn’t willing to take. Third, I knew that I wanted to move back to the east coast, and I knew that folks pursuing faculty careers couldn’t afford to limit themselves geographically.

About midway through my PhD program, I started taking stock of my skills in an attempt to figure out what kind of careers I might be interested in and qualified for. I got a lot of classroom teaching experience as part of my graduate funding package, and I cultivated an interest in pedagogy as I explored ways to make my courses in Humanities & Western Civilization innovative and exciting.

I’ve also always been tech-savvy – I hand-coded my first website when I was thirteen – and I started teaching fully-online undergraduate courses in 2012. My department approached me with an offer to design online master-course versions of our two flagship courses, Western Civilization I and II. I was paired with an Instructional Designer to develop these courses, and I learned so much from her. This sparked my interest in Instructional Design as a discipline, since it combined my interest in pedagogy with my technical skills. I began to build my resume, designing and developing online courses whenever I could. I was hired as an Instructional Designer at Johns Hopkins University in 2015, and it’s basically my dream job. I actually withdrew from my PhD program, since I knew I had found my niche.

The work I do is both creative and process-oriented, so I do a lot of creative work in my day-to-day as I design courses and work one-on-one with faculty to figure out how to translate their successes in on-ground environments into the online space. I also still adjunct, but only for fun now, which takes the pressure off and lets me be creative in experimenting with my teaching. Just this fall, I became part-time faculty in my division at Johns Hopkins as well, so I’ve had some space to design and teach online graduate courses. I make zines in my spare time to keep the creative juices flowing – and I’m currently designing and developing a course on zines that will be delivered next summer!

I’ve learned that while I may have decided to pursue an alt-ac career, I’ve carved out a space for myself where I still get to do some of the things I found fun about graduate school – which was mainly teaching. I also love working in higher education on the faculty support side. I partner with faculty from all disciplines, which is great for my lifetime learner-ism. I’m a true believer in the power of online learning to democratize higher education, so the fact that I can do mission-driven work on a daily basis is super energizing to me. Eleven years after I started my PhD program, I’m happy with where I ended up, even if it wasn’t where I thought it would be.

Instructional design is an exciting place to be right now. As colleges, universities, and even secondary schools continue moving toward offering more flexible options for students, online learning will continue to grow as a field. My department has added a new Instructional Designer to our staff every year since I started. There are opportunities in the corporate world, too!

If you find yourself interested in a career in Instructional Design, try incorporating online elements into your face-to-face classes if you’re currently teaching. Offer to teach an online section and dive in – the internet is full of information to get you started. Take an online MOOC for free to try out online learning. If you’re reflective about your teaching, you’ll see that you’re already doing instructional design on some level. Network with designers inside and outside of higher education, fiddle around with technology and web tools for teaching. The pedagogical work you’ve done in graduate school is a natural starting place for this type of work!

Ashley Acosta-Cox Headshot

Ashley Acosta-Fox, MA, left her PhD program in Philosophy to pursue a career she loves in Instructional Design. She currently works as an Instructional Designer at Johns Hopkins University.

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