The Real World: Perspectives from IDs in Their Second Career

Instructional DesignProfessional Development
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What is the “real world” of instructional design? Where is it? What is it like? The world of the instructional designer takes form in many places, populated by a wide variety of professionals who came to the field via disparate journeys. It appears that no two paths are alike. Students of instructional design may benefit from a glimpse into a future work setting that is likely to include instructional designers (IDs) who have no formal training or credentials in the field but learned on the job and transitioned from a different field.

It is not uncommon for learning and development professionals to take on the duties of an instructional designer and then seek out credentials or education to backfill what they already know. It’s certainly not the first job role with a three-word training manual: “Here, do it” — where one is expected to learn the job while on the job (and often on their own). In this chapter I share experiences and lessons learned from a survey of instructional design professionals who transitioned into this profession from other careers. Learning from their experiences may be helpful as you navigate your own transition.

How I Collected My Survey Findings

For this chapter, I created a 10-question survey that was posted on LinkedIn and other social media platforms and received 26 responses. I then conducted follow-up interviews with 12 survey respondents.

To respect the privacy of the interview subjects, I refer to them by pseudonyms only. Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity. The survey questions may be accessed here.

Experience Level

The 26 survey respondents possessed different levels of experience, from absolute beginners just moving into their first full-time ID role to practitioners with many years of experience in the field.

Bar graph depicting the lengths of ID careers related to the number of years of experience.
Figure 1. Length of Career Cited by 26 Survey Respondents

Former Careers

The former professions cited in the survey fell into three general categories: education/training, business/tech, and communications. Fourteen of the 26 respondents listed multiple former careers. The responses in the “other” category pointed to the richly varied backgrounds of current IDs.

Table depicting list of careers organized into: education/training, communications, business/tech, and other.
Figure 2. Previous Careers Listed by 26 Survey Respondents

Industry and Location

The 12 interview subjects reported their current employment in a variety of fields:

  1. Self-employed (two subjects owned their own learning and development [L&D] business)
  2. Financial institution
  3. Cosmetics manufacturer
  4. Cybersecurity
  5. Health care
  6. Video/media content
  7. International trade (clearance industry)
  8. Pet care industry
  9. E-learning firm
  10. Interpreter services
  11. Higher education

Almost all were in corporate or entrepreneurial roles, with only one employed by an educational organization. Of the 12 subjects, nine were based in the U.S. and three lived in Europe.


Half of the 12 interview subjects did not pursue formal university education in instructional design. “So many people come to it by accident,” said Jeff, a former corporate ID who owns a learning and development business. For example: “You’re really good at a thing, you excel, and you can explain and simplify concepts,” he said. “Then you’re the person onboarding and training the new hires.”

All attended college, and six had master’s degrees in other fields. One subject had a doctorate in ID, and one earned a doctorate in another field. Several completed professional training, including workshops or certifications in ID, or e-learning software like Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline.

Figure 3 shows a breakdown of the 12 interview subjects’ post-undergraduate education and formal training.

Figure 3. Post-Undergraduate Education Cited by 12 Interview Subjects
RespondentProfessional certification in ID or ID softwareMaster's or graduate certificate in IDMaster's in another fieldPhD in IDPhD in another field
1 LeeYesNoYesNoNo
2 RebekahYesNoNoNoNo
3 ElsaYesYesNoNoNo
4 MonicaYesYesNoNoNo
5 RosalieNoNoYesNoNo
6 GeorgiannaNoNoYesNoYes
7 JeffNoNoNoNoNo
8 JackieNoNoNoNoNo
9 KellyYesYesYesNoNo
10 NeilNoYesNoNoNo
11 ValerieNoYesYesNoNo
12 BridgetNoYesYesYesNo

For some practitioners, a degree in ID has seemed unnecessary. Rosalie, an education executive in the cosmetics industry who started off in sales, said: “My career seems to be doing really well without that—I’ve reached the level of executive director at a Fortune 500 company, which I’m so proud of. I’m really thankful for all the people who’ve given me practical on-the-job experience and application. Maybe if I wanted to pursue a job at another company, an MBA with an education focus would help. You never want to stop learning, but in terms of getting a formal degree, I’m not sure that’s necessary at this point.”

One interview subject is devoted to educating the next generation of IDs. Bridget, who has two master’s degrees in other fields plus a Ph.D. in instructional systems, is a professor who emphasizes both theory and application for her undergraduate ID students. “It’s important to have both the theory and the software [knowledge],” she said. “Students don’t get jobs otherwise.”

In Their Words: What Instructional Designers Say About the Profession

The following sections include observations and insights from the interview subjects. As this was a relatively small survey, these findings are not intended to be conclusive or definitive; instead, it is a snapshot of the field at a moment in time based on the experiences of this group of professionals.

The Definition of “Instructional Design” Is in the Eye of the Beholder

We know what “instructional design” is—don’t we? We would like to think we do; as for others, like our colleagues or stakeholders, the field is not well understood. Consequentially, several interview subjects had much to say about the perceptions and common misconceptions of instructional design.

Here are some of their observations:

“Most people in the business world do not understand it. People hear ‘instructional design,’ and they don’t know if you’re a trainer or an e-learning administrator, etc.—there is a lot of confusion over roles on an education team. They don’t know what you have control over and what you don’t” (Rosalie).

“One misconception is that ID is one thing. Not everyone who does ID is good at it or does it in the same way. . . . It’s the art of communication and persuasion” (Lee).

“There is a lack of understanding about what IDs do. Some think training is always the answer to almost any problem” (Rebekah).

“Outsiders don’t quite get it. Stakeholders have unrealistic expectations” (Georgianna).

“What ‘instructional design’ is depends on who you ask—it varies by the company and the projects. The term is relative” (Jeff).

In addition to a lack of understanding about ID itself, the process and the time it takes were points of sensitivity:

“[Colleagues] see content going onto an online platform or into a workshop; they do not understand the magnitude of the process. Writing, vetting, approvals, reviews, checks and balances, uploading. It can be an arduous process. All this is required to maintain a level of trust with our stakeholders” (Rosalie).

“Externally [people outside L&D], it’s the ‘order taker’ mentality” (Monica). (Note: This refers to the idea that a stakeholder decides an education deliverable is needed, and L&D is there to simply take the order and produce it without question.)

“The biggest misconception is the time frame. We constantly have to defend how long it takes to do things. A stakeholder might say, ‘It’s just XYZ’—they have no idea of the scope, how many places that change must be made in different materials” (Elsa).

Instructional design practitioners were also urged to resist placing too much emphasis on technology tools:

“Some IDs are overly focused on learning software and less on making a good learning experience. They think the tech is the most important thing. Our product [a video platform] is not what is going to make you a good ID. It’s about piecing the knowledge together. If you don’t know ID, this will not fix that. The tech is only as good as the person manipulating it. We are putting out so much content just to put it out, it’s hard to find the content that is valuable. Calm down about the tech, and focus on the theory and what makes a good learning experience” (Monica).

“Focusing on the tech is doing a huge disservice to the field. We know how people learn and process information; that’s what we should focus on” (Bridget).

Transferrable Skills

The 12 interview subjects had many skills from their previous careers and education. Several skills they mentioned have obvious utility in the work of instructional design, including:

Project management can be an especially useful toolkit. Bridget, the ID professor, said that it’s not necessary to pursue a project management professional (PMP) credential, but it’s beneficial to know the concepts and terminology around budgets, timelines, and stakeholder management. She said these skills help get her students “prepped to leave the nest and get a job.”

Neil, who works at an e-learning firm, zeroed in on the importance of writing—a skill that is valued in the hiring process at his company. “If you’re a strong writer, that matters,” he said. “We can work with that. If you focus on the writing, it really makes a difference.”

A less obvious skillset has shaped careers in ID—the performing arts. Two interview subjects reflected on their backgrounds in the arts as helpful in their current profession.

What They Wish They Knew …

Several interview subjects reflected on the question “what I wish I knew before becoming an ID”. They reported the following:

Every instructional designer, like these who responded to the survey, faces surprises once they are on the job. To help you anticipate some of these surprises, read through the following case vignettes and application exercises to learn more about various angles of “real” instructional design work.

LIDT in the World

The following scenarios encompass real ID issues and challenges presented by the interview subjects and what might be learned from their experiences.

#1 A New Phone System: Delivering the Right Resource to Learners

Elsa is an instructional designer with more than a decade of experience in the field. She’s in an L&D department of two people at a credit union with more than 700 employees. One challenge she described was a “constant tug of war” regarding the recommendations she makes versus what the stakeholder wants.

When the company installed a new phone system, training became a “hot potato” issue—no one wanted to own it, and employees decidedly did not want to attend formal training. (Note: It’s no secret that learners resist training on topics they think they already know or believe should be intuitive.) The phone system vendor and the IT department had offered a Word document that was less than user-friendly.

Elsa’s solution: Create a step-by-step how-to guide based on that Word document—a digital resource easily accessed by employees that will have a long shelf life.

The takeaway: The how-to guide was not necessarily the solution envisioned by stakeholders, but it met the instructional need and the preferences of the learners. “I did the right thing for the employees,” Elsa said.

#2 Learner Empathy: Putting Yourself in Their Shoes

As a longtime e-learning designer and owner of an L&D company, Jeff thrives on helping other IDs learn and improve their skills. With the rising demand for IDs* and his own well-established brand, he has no shortage of learners seeking his guidance.

One of his specialties is advising IDs on creating a portfolio of their work to show potential employers. His learners include new and early-career practitioners who need “tangible, practical steps” on what to include in their portfolio. Jeff said he has sometimes veered too much into the philosophical, theoretical side of ID and has to remind himself about what it was like to be brand-new to the field

The takeaway: A lesson in learner-centric design for IDs at any stage of their career is: As you gain knowledge and experience, it is sometimes essential to put yourself in the mindset of an absolute beginner.

*According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. employment outlook for instructional designers is strong, with an 11 percent increase in positions expected between 2016 and 2026.

#3 Death of a Patient: Was It a Lack of Training?

A hospital patient in the United Kingdom died, unfortunately, from an overdose of paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen). It turned out that the medication, managed in a digital system, had been overprescribed despite computer alerts to hospital staff—which were manually overridden. In the aftermath, the question arose about whether nurses had been properly trained on the electronic prescribing system—a lack of training that had dire consequences. Rebekah, a technician-turned-trainer who taught others to use the electronic system, saw the problem as something deeper than a lack of training on digital prescriptions. The staff included many nurses from less developed nations who lacked basic computer skills. They may have unwittingly overridden the fail-safe alerts with no knowledge of the potential impact. Additionally, Rebekah said she once observed a nurse struggling to even log onto a hospital computer.

The takeaway: The hospital had apparently not considered the entry skills of this population of learners. The ability to use a computer proficiently may have been assumed. Could a robust ID process (including learner analysis, task analysis, environment analysis and pilot testing) have uncovered this important detail about the learners?

#4 Knowing vs. Doing: Inside the Mind of an ID Strategist

Here is a perpetual challenge in learning and development: ensuring people can actually use and apply what they learned. As more instructional designers are hired to help companies with their training and educational needs, stakeholders sometimes focus on what they want their employees to know—as if simply knowing certain information leads to a desired outcome.

Lee, a former marketing executive who is an ID strategist/consultant, shared this advice: “Think about what you want people to DO, not just what you want them to KNOW. How do they apply this learning in their life and work? If we are going to be seen as credible and valuable by organizations, we have to help the business achieve its goals. L&D budgets are always under scrutiny. We have to become indispensable. What are you doing to help the business? How are your deliverables helping the business get to its goals?”

She zeroed in on useless training metrics that are sometimes deployed (How many people attended? Did participants like the training?). “A CEO would think that’s cute,” she said. “But what is moving the needle for that business?”

The takeaway: Performance and behavior, not simply understanding, are what really count. How does the learner use the knowledge?

Quote by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749–1832) which reads: “In the end we retain from our studies only that which we practically apply.”

#5 Being Your Own SME: Two Who Have Been There

Typically, instructional designers rely on other people who are SMEs to explain, enlighten and educate on their area of expertise. But this is not always the case.

  • Before he was an ID, Jeff’s specialty was retail loss prevention. He got so good at it that he was asked to help train others on what he knew. It was the first step on his path to becoming not just an ID, but a successful, award-winning designer with his own business. Being his own SME on a topic he knew well set him up for success. As he reflected on his career path, he believes that if he had entered the profession another way, he “would have failed as an ID.”
  • Jackie is a product trainer for a cybersecurity company. She configures devices and performs tasks, learning as she goes. “I take photos and write the step-by-step instructions,” she said. In her role for about a year-and-a-half, she has become her own SME as part of her ID process and is getting a better grasp on what her learners need to know. She said her team has come to realize her value and is relying on her more and more.

The takeaway: Sometimes, IDs must get creative and become their own expert.

#6 The Award-Winning Training . . . That Didn’t Actually Work

Bridget was hired as an ID at a Fortune 500 technology company that was winning awards from the industry for their training materials. When she came on board, she requested user testing; the awards (as well as focus groups and surveys) had praised the overall design and look of the materials, but she suspected that usability was subpar. She eventually discovered that, for example, a training video for server admins did not account for the noise generated in a room full of computer servers. The learners could not hear the voiceover in the video. Bridget reflected: “Could your people actually use it? And the answer was no.”

The takeaway: Get to know your learners and how they consume the content. For instance, if they are primarily using mobile devices for training, it’s essential that the training actually functions and looks good on mobile devices. Or, in this case, if people will be viewing the material in a typically noisy environment, then you might need a plan to accommodate for different training conditions—for example, subtitles on the video.

Practice Scenario #1

Read the following scenario and reflect on how you would handle the situation.

Your colleague, the vice president (VP) of sales at an auto dealership, says she needs a training video for new sales associates by the end of the month. Several new hires are starting next month, and she needs to get them trained quickly. You are the sole L&D professional at the company.

What would you do? (More than one option may be applicable.)

Option A: Ask the VP how new hires are currently trained. Are there other educational assets that can be deployed until you have a chance to develop a solution?
Option B: Inform the VP that you will contact a video production company right away to get started.
Option C: Tell the VP that you are a department of one and there is no way you can produce a video at all.
Option D: Inquire about the goals of the video. What does she expect the sales associates to be able to do after watching it?

Debrief: Options A and D are the right direction. As instructional designers, ideally, we want to partner with stakeholders and discover their true needs, then design and develop a solution that achieves the goal.

Practice Scenario #2

Read the following scenario and reflect on how you would handle the situation.

You are a freelance ID contracted by a driving school to work with an in-house SME on a slide presentation for an instructor-led driver training class. The SME has provided source materials and insists that all of the vocabulary for the class should appear on the slides—everything from “acceleration lane” to “yield”—dozens of words and their definitions. You explain that this will be cognitive overload for the learners, but she is adamant that the presentation include all the words on the slides.

What would you do?

Option A: Create the presentation as she has directed. She is the expert, and you do not want to create animosity with your client, the driving school. 
Option B: Ask the SME to try two sample pilot versions of the presentation (6–10 slides), one with all the vocabulary and another with keywords on the slides along with a vocabulary worksheet. Test each version with a few learners, then compare the results. It’s likely your version will be more effective, and the SME may be convinced by your methods.
Option C: Remind the SME that you are the expert when it comes to developing education materials, and create the presentation you envisioned. You are sure she will come around to your way of doing things.
Option D: Tell the driving school that the SME is impossible to work with. Request a different SME or inform them that you must quit the project.

Debrief: Option B is on track. But what if there is no time to pilot the materials? Or what if you pilot-test the instruction, and your materials prove more effective, but the SME still insists on doing it her way? You may need to seek guidance from the project owner about the best course of action.

Practice Scenario #3

Read the following scenario and reflect on how you would handle the situation.

You are an ID at a large health insurance company in a department that employs call-center nurses. The vice president of the department comes up with an idea for online training on how to deal with angry callers. He provides a content resource: a messy, handwritten storyboard about how he thinks the training should flow. He then asks you to “take it from there.”

What would you do? (More than one option may be applicable.)

Option A. Ask the VP what problem he is trying to solve. What should the call-center nurses do differently after taking the training?
Option B. Find a SME who excels at handling angry callers, and gather their best practices and tips for the training.
Option C. Read through the storyboard and edit it for clarity and logic, then meet with the VP to work out the next steps in the process.
Option D. Investigate the current training and resources for handling angry callers. Following this investigation, present your findings to the VP. How will his training improve on what already exists?

Debrief: Options A and D are probably the best place to start. If there is already training on angry callers, what isn’t working? You may need to find out whether it’s a “skill or will” issue. The nurses may possess the skill but aren’t willing to use it—why? Or there may be some obstacle you need to discover to get at the root of the problem.

Practice Scenario #4

Read the following scenario and reflect on how you would handle the situation.

You are a busy corporate ID at a growing restaurant chain. The onboarding process for new employees is evolving to include some e-learning and in-person training. You’re asked to convert a large slide presentation (a full day of content of about 90 slides) to e-learning, and the HR director asks for the project to be completed within two weeks in order to be ready for a wave of new hires. You are in a department of two L&D professionals.

What would you do? (More than one option may be applicable.)

Option A. Stop work on other projects immediately. Ask your L&D co-worker to do the same so you can complete the e-learning by the requested date.
Option B. Ask the HR director to consider outsourcing the project to an e-learning company.
Option C. Explain to the HR director that two weeks is not enough time for you to create the e-learning modules; two months (or more, depending on other project needs) is a more realistic time frame. 
Option D. Tell the HR director that you have several other projects to complete before you can take on her project; request that they continue using the slide presentation as-is until then.

Debrief: Option C and D are the most realistic. It’s unlikely that you can drop what you are doing to take on this project; your other stakeholders are going to be very unhappy, and it’s unfair to them and their priorities. Outsourcing the project for delivery within two weeks is probably going to be cost-prohibitive. Using the slide presentation as-is may work for a short period of time until the e-learning can be completed.

Note: You may have noticed in the practice scenarios that stakeholders frequently request a particular modality for training. Part of the challenge for IDs is to determine how the learners will get the most out of the instruction: Is it best delivered as an in-person session, webinar, video, e-learning, written guide, job aid, etc.? What is the best option for the learners (not the stakeholders)? Then consider that the best option may take too long to develop or may be very expensive. These are some of the factors you may have to balance.

Parting Words: Advice on Nurturing Your ID Career

It should come as no surprise that learning professionals keep learning and evolving as they gain experience in the field. In this section, they share some of their hard-earned wisdom and insights.

On lifelong learning:

“Go work for an organization that does tuition reimbursement and continue your education.” (Elsa, an ID in financial services)

On industry conferences:

“What I would recommend is thoroughly vetting any conference you want to attend, because they cost money. If you get there and you’re not getting something applicable to your team, what a waste of time and money.” (Rosalie, who works for a cosmetics manufacturer)

On owning an L&D business: 

“Don’t be afraid of running your own show. Go do some things that are uncomfortable.” (Lee, owner of a learning strategy firm)

“There isn’t a dollar figure that would get me to go back into a corporate ID role. As a freelancer . . . there is so much less BS. In freelance work, I don’t deal with office politics. I do my work and move on to the next client.” (Jeff, owner of an e-learning firm)

On networking online*:

“The most difficult thing to get over is being alone [as the sole L&D employee at her location]. Things changed when I discovered ID communities. I was alone in my job, but we are a big community. You can reach out; you can share and give/receive feedback. The most important thing is sharing and being part of something. This job sometimes is lonely. But you have people worldwide who can help. Your network is essential!” (Georgianna, a corporate ID based in Europe)

On networking in person*:

“I do some virtual webinars and [industry] meetups when I can. At one gathering, I found out about an accessibility course from someone I met at a pub. I was able to go to the course for free and put it on my CV. If I hadn’t gone out, I wouldn’t have known about it! It’s nice to have a network that knows the importance of ID.” (Rebekah, a health care ID)

*5 Ways to Connect With the ID Community

  1. Become a member of the Association for Talent Development or another professional organization. ATD’s mission is to “empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace”; They offer courses, events, conferences, and many free resources. Many areas have local chapters for in-person networking, volunteering, and continuing education.
  2. Read the books and blogs produced by authors and thought leaders in instructional design. Connect with/follow them on social media.
  3. Join the Instructional Designers group and follow #instructionaldesign on LinkedIn.
  4. Take advantage of alumni services, events, workshops, etc. through your undergraduate or graduate program.
  5. Join Black in L&D—a community that supports and celebrates L&D professionals who are Black; for allies of the community, support or follow the group on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Chapter Summary & Conclusion

Instructional designers come to the profession in countless ways and perform the job according to the processes and nuances of the organization or client employing them. A degree or certification in instructional design is generally viewed as optional to get started in the profession, and on-the-job experience is a common entryway into an ID career. In this chapter, we have met a handful of practitioners working in the field today. Their passion and enthusiasm for their work is apparent, and the insights and experiences shared here may be helpful to those entering or learning more about the real world of instructional design. Despite the challenges, the satisfaction is palpable. Valerie, an ID in interpreter services, said: “I absolutely love what I do.”

Think About It!

What stories, advice or observations from this chapter resonated with you?

What useful skills did you acquire before studying instructional design? How have you used these skills throughout your education journey?

How did you decide to study instructional design? How will you know if you are successful in your career?

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