Instructional Design Careers: 4 Things PhDs Need to Know

Instructional design is a tried-and-true career path for academics and PhDs of all backgrounds who love teaching.

But what is an instructional design career, really? What does an instructional designer actually do?

In this article, we’ll cut through all the jargon and technical terminology and determine what, exactly, this particular career path actually involves.

Instructional design is, in a nutshell, the science of education. It’s about creating, delivering, and evaluating educational services in a rigorous, evidence-based manner.

Put differently, instructional design deals with the tools, methods, and theories of teaching abstracted from the particular subject matter being taught.

Instructional designers sometimes go by other titles such as “learning experience designer” or “training specialist.” But no matter what you call them, they work in a wide variety of settings and in nearly every sector or industry you can think of.

Here are 4 essential things academics and PhDs should know about instructional design careers for PhDs.

1. They Design Way More Than Just Lesson Plans

Based on our experience, there’s a fair bit of confusion out there about what an instructional design career actually entails.

Why’s that? Well, if you haven’t already, look up some ID job advertisements and take a gander at their descriptions of responsibilities. For example:

  • Research, design, and develop digital learning processes as well as instructor-led content.
  • Revise and enhance training materials and learning assets to reflect product changes, updates or releases.
  • Build meaningful relationships with subject matter experts and stakeholders to design and develop content that translates identified business needs into consumable learning solutions.
  • Manage end-to-end design and release timelines for various digital learning assets.

Had enough? It is, indeed, an avalanche of business jargon.

But, once you cut through all the gobbledygook of the job descriptions, you’ll find that instructional design jobs offer a wide variety of tasks, responsibilities, and challenges that make excellent use of your hard-earned academic skills.

Apart from plain-old lesson plans and curricula, instructional designers work on everything from ebooks to podcasts, videos, webinars, and (occasionally) online programs, quizzes, and even video games.

Nowadays, the majority of learning materials instructional designers produce are delivered digitally. Online education has been growing for decades and exploded in popularity during the pandemic.

You don’t need to be a tech whiz or anything to get instructional design jobs. However, you should be well-versed in all the major online learning management systems (Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, and so on). Be prepared to transfer those skills to whatever digital platforms your employer might be using.

2. They Work Everywhere

Instructional designer careers exist in basically every industry you can think of.

Any business or organization that trains its employees will hire instructional designers to create, implement, and assess the effectiveness of that training. They will produce instructional design models to train employees on a specific tool, technology, or method.

Think of it this way: instructional designers are the bridges between technology and education. Wherever advanced educational tools or methods are needed, instructional designers will be there to facilitate the processes.

Many schools, colleges, and universities employ instructional designers. However, instructional designers are separate from classroom teachers. While K–12 teachers (for example) may have some training in ID, the instructional designers by trade work year-round in office settings.

Their jobs may involve conducting one-on-one consultations with faculty and recommending evidence-based changes to curriculum delivery. They may assist faculty with curriculum mapping and meeting the standards of the local accrediting organization.

Do you remember all those teaching methods workshops you were told to attend in grad school but didn’t? That’s what instructional designers do!

3. They Can (but Don’t Need to) Earn Advanced Degrees

There is no specific degree or credential associated with instructional design careers.

Many instructional designers, naturally, have teaching certifications. Some may hold a Master of Education, while others have a bachelor’s degree plus several years of teaching experience. Others, as you know, hold PhDs.

Apart from degrees, there are all kinds of instructional design programs and certificates to choose from. They’ll show core concepts of ID such as the ADDIE model or Merrill’s principles of instruction (see below).

However, at the end of the day, the core qualification for being an instructional designer is proven, on-the-job teaching experience and strong problem-solving skills.

If this career path interests you, snag as much teaching experience as you possibly can. If you’re a PhD student, teach courses (as instructor of record) for your home department. Call up local colleges and ask if they’d need any teaching assistance.

Community colleges and certain four-year institutions frequently hire “community faculty” to teach courses on an adjunct basis. Adjuncting is no way to make a career, but it’s an excellent way to build your teaching credentials while still in grad school. If you’re serious about ID, definitely consider this.

If you can get experience with online or e-learning courses, all the better!

4. They Have a Sophisticated Theories and Methods

If you’re afraid of not being intellectually challenged as an instructional designer, don’t be. We promise that their body of theories is as deep and sophisticated as anything you studied in your PhD program.

What is instructional design theory? Well, have you heard of the ADDIE method? Merrill’s principles? Bloom’s taxonomy? These are a few commonly used instructional design models and frameworks.

The ADDIE model provides a general framework for instructional systems design. ADDIE stands for:

  • Analysis
  • Design
  • Development
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation

Its purpose is to help instructors focus on the specific learning goals and methods to evaluate those goals.

Bloom’s taxonomy is one of the best-known ID theories. Proposed in 1956 by educational psychologist and unused James Joyce character Benjamin Bloom, the taxonomy comprises three different instructional design models—cognitive, affective, and psychomotor—that together are used to classify education and learning objectives.

 Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction (yes, in caps) is a kind of “theory of everything” for ID. These principles take a mile-high view of the field and—according to their proponents—form a theoretical basis upon which all other principles and methods of ID are built.

Suffice it to say that instructional design theory is academically rigorous enough to satisfy any PhDs craving for research, knowledge, and study.

Conclusion

To conclude, let us just say that instructional design careers are definitely not for everyone.

If you relish the face-to-face interactions you have with your students, the heavily digital nature of instructional design jobs might not be your thing.

Likewise, if the subject matter was the main thing that interested you about teaching, ID may have limited appeal. Instructional designers deal with all kinds of different subject matter and topics, most of which they have no particular expertise in.

But if you love teaching for its own sake and believe in the power of technology to expand and enhance educational opportunities for all, give ID a fair shot

As noted in the intro, ID is best thought of as the science of education. Not an exact science, perhaps, but one steeped in evidence, data, and real-world results. ID theories are formulated to account for—and make predictions based on—the concrete evidence collected in the classroom.

Likewise, if you love the idea of elevating teaching to a genuine science, an instructional design career may be the right fit for you.

For more tips on ID and other potential career paths, check out our post on careers for PhDs who love teaching.

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