Changing careers to begin an instructional design job may sound like a scary thing to do, but more and more people are catching the instructional design buzz. Instructional design is one of the top jobs teachers can transition into. I spoke to four instructional design and eLearning professionals who made the switch (3 are former teachers!). And, the best part is that they are all working instructional design remote jobs. They have made the career change into instructional design jobs in Higher Education, Corporate, and Freelancing.
Instructional design can be an excellent fit for career changers coming from a variety of different fields. But, if you’re thinking about making a change, you’ve got to check out what these four instructional design job changers have to say!
I Interviewed 4 Instructional Design Career Changers: Here’s what I learned
Shawntay: Today, we’re going to be talking to some instructional design career changers. We’ve got corporate, freelance, and higher ed. So, we’ve got a rounded-out, experienced group here that you can learn from.
I’ll be asking them questions to help you figure out what kind of instructional design job might interest you.
Tell us about your previous profession and what kind of instructional design job you have now.
I was a teacher for ten years. So, I taught high school social studies. Then, I decided to switch gears and became an instructional designer. I spent a lot of my first professional instructional design job working in the corporate world. Now, I work for the instructional design company with Shawntay!
Tell us a bit of what you were doing when you made that teacher to instructional designer transition?
I started as a training specialist. Then, I moved into a corporate trainer sort of role. So, I would deliver and facilitate leadership training for both team members and managers within the organization. So, we had learning paths, and I would facilitate and build things for the organization.
In my transition to that, I tried to use my experience and use all of my expertise from the classroom. But also to not be a poor teacher anymore! I get to check all of those boxes with instructional design, so I’m really glad about that.
I was also a teacher. For ten years, I taught middle school French, and this is my first year as a full-time freelance instructional designer.
I was on the corporate side for many years, working with a large insurance company. I worked on their education team, doing the up close and personal with the agents where I was doing the training and the facilitating. And then all of a sudden, [the company] also decided that we really need to have an actual design team. They called [the role] the education development specialist, but that’s just the fancy term for an instructional designer.
So I applied for that and earned the right to sit in the seat. It was super exciting to be there. Unfortunately, though, all good things must come to an end. So as of this time last year, they restructured the team, and my role was eliminated. It was a total shocker. I didn’t know what I was going to do! I gave it some thought and opened my own design company, and I’ve been working on that on the side. So, it’s been exciting!
I was also a teacher for about 15 years (language arts and reading). Then, I had an opportunity to leave the classroom and work for some Ed Tech companies.
I realized when I started looking into instructional design that I’ve been just following the ADDIE model for the last nine years. I was developing content to help teachers, administrators, and students learn how to use instructional software.
So, that’s how I started my transition: building content and delivering it, and doing face-to-face training. I was doing the data analysis, meeting with the stakeholders, and going over the data because it was a business. And if the data looks good, then they’re going to rebuy, and I get a bonus!
Bonuses are good. We want bonuses!
It’s always good to have the money! All in all, I found out last year that I was already doing instructional design. I just needed to learn the terminology and some of the cool tech we now have to develop content.
What spaces are you working in related to instructional design?
I’m working with higher ed right now. So, I’m working with subject matter experts (some are professors, and some are experts in their area). I work with them to write content for a college and put their instruction online.
Describe your transition from the classroom to a full-time freelance instructional design job.
It was a slow journey for me! Teachers are expected to get their Master’s degree. The traditional options for teachers weren’t very exciting. I couldn’t see those degrees being helpful outside of teaching.
Even though I had no plans to leave teaching, I wanted to do something that could be useful elsewhere if I ever needed an exit plan!
So, I got my Master’s in instructional design. I saw somebody on LinkedIn with this job title, “Instructional Designer.” I looked it up and was surprised that I had never heard of instructional design before. It seemed like such a perfect fit! I wondered, “why don’t more teachers know about this?” It seemed like such a natural path.
I finished that degree, and I didn’t think about an instructional design job for two years. Then, in 2019, I had what I thought was the worst year ever. 2020 put things into perspective there! It was a stressful year in my work due to things that were outside of my control.
So, I started looking at instructional design jobs. I polished off my resume and put together a sad portfolio using content I created as a teacher. I applied for jobs in every sector as well as bidding on projects on Upwork.
After a couple of months, I was offered a freelance position with an eLearning startup. It was a perfect opportunity that I was able to build into a freelance instructional design career.
What is a typical workday for a Corporate, Freelance, or Higher Ed instructional designer?
In the higher ed environment on day one, I’m introduced to the subject matter expert I will be working with. We go over our template, and then I take on the role of project manager.
I work with the subject matter expert to fill in content into a template. Then, we set up learning objectives for the entire course. Next, we evaluate those learning objectives. I’ve found that even if someone says they know Bloom’s taxonomy and how to write the learning objectives, don’t always take them for their word! Because they don’t, they might know the first two levels.
So it is our job to coach them by writing higher-level thinking objectives for these courses and guiding them. I’ve had to look at my communication style and step back to avoid offending somebody or making them feel like what they’re doing is wrong. When you’re working with a subject matter expert, they know their field, and we know ours. Sometimes communicating the differences isn’t an easy thing to do!
I want to highlight something that Joanie called out. As instructional designers, we know best practices in instructional design. So if you take our advice, we’re going to show you how to build the most incredible learning experience.
In the real world, we have this knowledge and expertise. Then when we go to work with someone who is an expert in the content but not in how to design amazing learning experiences. So it’s important to help the content experts reframe their expertise to fit within that learning experience.
We have to do this incrementally. It might be rough the first time you work with that subject matter expert! The next project you work with them on, it will get a little easier.
Darlene, what’s a typical day in your instructional design job?
I’ll give you a view of the corporate world because that’s where the bulk of my experience so far has been. Day one looks very similar to what Joanie described. It’s super, super fast-paced. You’ve got to learn to juggle and prioritize big time.
It’s not uncommon to be working on more than one project at a time. There could be multiple projects, and they could be huge projects, like rewriting policy processing software into a new program.
A project request comes to the manager, who assigns an instructional designer. From there, it’s very similar to what Joanie said. I work with the subject matter expert and follow ADDIE.
But, what led me to the Instructional Design and Tech Accelerator class was that I didn’t really know the adult learning theories. So, once I struck out on my own, I wanted to fill any gaps in my knowledge.
The Accelerator class helped me to cement what I already knew and fill in those gaps. In the corporate world, storyboarding may look different. Because everything is so fast-paced, maybe the storyboard isn’t a PowerPoint or a Word document. Perhaps it’s a mock-up of what the course could look like. Once it’s been determined (through working with SMEs) that we would build an eLearning course in Rise, for example, I would just start designing it instead of having a Storyboard. At the insurance company, we didn’t have the time to look at a storyboard.
My number one takeaway from a corporate instructional design career is that you’re never looking at someone’s resume and see ‘subject matter expert’ listed. It’s not their regular role. The SME has probably been voluntold. A huge takeaway from the corporate world is that the instructional designer has to sit down with the SME and walk them through project expectations.
Another good call-out Darlene! Best practices can collide with the real world. If you have a deadline, you might fast-forward through some steps of the instructional design process. That’s something that can come with experience, too. Thank you for highlighting that. Sarah, tell us about a day in the life of a freelance instructional designer.
What I love about freelance work versus teaching is the structure of the day. My workday is structured how I want to structure it. On the flip side, if I don’t put a system into place, there isn’t any!
I start every day with a to-do list. Physical planners help me schedule and prioritize the work since I work on multiple projects simultaneously. So I have to pay close attention to timelines to know what needs my attention first.
I also have to keep in mind my client’s time zones when it comes to my schedule. For example, if I have a delivery date on something for a West Coast client, sometimes I know I can squeeze that project in first thing in the morning before they’re awake!
Additionally, I work with contractors and lead other instructional designers. So another important part of my day is checking in on them and making sure they have the resources they need to continue their work.
Apart from that, my day is filled with the ins and outs of whatever my current project is. Right now, I’m deep in development in Articulate Storyline.
But also, my typical day includes errands or picking up my daughter from school. So I’m able to balance my workday with my family, which I love.
So true. That is something beautiful about being in business for yourself. The flexibility in your schedule is a nice perk. Alright, Katie, tell us about a day in the life for you.
It’s nice to hear everybody’s. There’s a lot of what I do in all three. I’ll focus on the corporate side. It’s fast-paced and fast-changing in terms of project scope. I will say, depending on your leadership, the scope can be fluid in corporate. It can be frustrating on the one hand, but it’s also nice to move things along quickly.
Are certain instructional design jobs typically remote?
It depends on the organization. It’s also like a pre-COVID/post-COVID question. Before COVID, most corporate jobs wanted their instructional designers in person. Now, after COVID, they’ve realized the work can be done remotely. So there’s a little more open-mindedness towards remote work for all positions now.
I agree, and just to highlight, all of us on this panel today are remote instructional designers, so I just wanted to call that out!
Did you struggle with imposter syndrome during your transition to an instructional design job?
That is something I think about all the time. [In teaching] we’re building courses, writing learning objectives, and preparing the delivery. You understand how to break things down for students. All of that is the same thing we’re doing as instructional designers.
As far as overcoming imposter syndrome, I encourage you to find your instructional design tribe. Find people you can talk through that imposter syndrome. Maybe someone on your reference list who’s going to help you see attributes you can’t always see in yourself.
Your instructional design tribe might consist of LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends, maybe other instructional designers in The Hangout. Reach out to them, send a message and start building a relationship.
Coming from teaching, it felt like someone was going to walk into the first day of my instructional design job and say, “No, get your purse. This isn’t the place for you!” In that first week, I met with leadership and had this lightbulb moment where I realized that everybody was still figuring things out. It doesn’t matter what position you’re in.
There’s also power in saying, “I don’t really know, I’ll figure it out.” No one is going to kick you out, but we feel like they might! Looking back, I realize I had as much experience as everyone else.
I have two moments in my life where, as an instructional designer, I experienced strong imposter syndrome.
Early in my role, I was often pulled into huge projects because of my background. These were 20 module compliance trainings. And how fun can you make it when it’s compliance training?
To step out of that, I relied on my colleagues’ advice. It helped me learn by watching others and recognizing that it can still be engaging, even if it is compliance training.
My second comment about big-time imposter syndrome was when I lost my job. I felt like maybe the role was eliminated because I wasn’t good enough. But logically, I knew the role was eliminated across the entire country. It wasn’t just me.
I gained back confidence because of my colleagues. I still have a folder filled with positive emails and recognition I received while working. If I’m feeling low, I can read through it. It’s also helped build my reference list!
I’ve been in education for about 20 years, in all different roles. In every single one of those roles, I was like, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!” I had imposter syndrome in every role.
At an ATD conference I attended, one of the speakers (a VP) mentioned they experienced it even at their level.
It’s normal to experience discomfort when you’re in a period of growth. We all go through periods of growth followed by periods of comfort so that imposter syndrome can ebb and flow. It’s totally normal!
What are your favorite instructional design resources?
ATD (webinars and articles)
Articulate Community (elearning blog and Articulate project help)
Audacity (audio editing)
SnagIt (video and screen capture tool)
Training Magazine Network (free webinars)
NV Access (screen reader)
What’s your best piece of advice for new instructional designers?
My biggest advice comes from the movie Frozen 2, just to do the next right thing. So you might know the end goal but not all the steps in between. So take the first step, and it will form from there.
For freelancers, my best piece of advice is to say yes. If you have an opportunity, take it, even if it doesn’t pay well or you feel that imposter syndrome like you won’t be able to do the work. Say yes to everything at first. Then, you’ll get to a point where you can be picky and charge a higher rate.
Connect with everyone on LinkedIn. It’s not like Facebook. It’s professionals. You can connect with anyone, even if they’re not instructional designers.
Use LinkedIn as a tool, even if you’re not applying to jobs yet. Especially for those transitioning from teaching who are worried about their resumes. Use the required skills from job postings to learn and build your resume.
And again, I encourage you to find your instructional design tribe. Especially if you’re working remotely, those connections are so meaningful.
Wrapping it Up
Have more questions? Looking to find your instructional design tribe? Join The Hangout to ask questions, get free training, and more.