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How to Become an Instructional Designer

Industry Advice Education

Today’s learning landscape isn’t one dimensional; it’s a blend of classroom, online, and mobile learning. As a result, there’s a growing need for professionals who are skilled at analyzing learners’ needs and goals, and using that understanding to design, structure, and implement content in order to optimize a learning experience.

According to Elizabeth Mahler—associate teaching professor and lead faculty for Northeastern’s Master of Education in eLearning and Instructional Design program—the instructional design field has evolved over the past 20 to 25 years. 

“Instructional or learning design provides a foundation for an alternative to standing and delivering instruction that so many expert faculty bring into their classrooms,” Mahler says. “It’s more learner-centered now. You start with the end in mind: What do learners want and need to know? You go backwards from there. There’s been a push to improve learning everywhere, which is why this field is gaining popularity as a profession.”

Successful learning designers must have a specific skill set, knowledge base, and experience to excel in the workplace. In this article, we provide a closer look at the salaries, titles, and job outlook for instructional designers, and explore the steps you can take to establishing a career in this growing field.

What Is an Instructional Designer?

Instructional designers are responsible for creating and implementing instruction, whether in a K-12 education setting, for colleges and universities, the government, nonprofits, or for corporations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these professionals have a variety of duties, including evaluating the effectiveness of curricula, analyzing learner data, and recommending changes in course materials.

“With instructional design, you’re learning to take a systematic approach to putting a process in place, then evaluating it,” Mahler says. “It’s looking at something from 40,000 feet, then going into the weeds to create an approach to get there.”

To do this, instructional designers must develop and facilitate instruction that draws on the latest research in the science and art of learning design. They work to develop dynamic environments that engage learners through a variety of media—including images, words, videos, and animations—and must understand the nuances of organizational culture, project demands, and allocated resources when working within budgets and with other stakeholders.

Learn More: What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

Professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds are often drawn to this work due to the vast array of career opportunities available within the field. Those with previous experience in educational or training roles in K-12 or higher education, corporations, non-profits, or government agencies are particularly well suited to translate their skills to a career in instructional design.


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Instructional Design Job Outlook

There is a very positive outlook for those who wish to pursue a career in this lucrative field. For instance, as a result of an increase in online learning, the instructional design field is expected to grow at a steady rate of about 4 to 6 percent through 2028

Those who hold specific titles in the industry are also set to see similarly positive outlooks. Instructional coordinator jobs are expected to grow at a rate of six percent by 2028, for example, while training and development specialists are seeing jobs increase by nine percent—a rate faster than that of the average role.

Instructional Design Careers & Salaries

The average salary of an instructional design professional in America is $84,421 per year—a figure which has grown at a rate of 5.6 percent from 2013 to 2020.

Learn More: How Much Do Instructional Designers Make?

One of the benefits of pursuing a career in instructional design, however, is that professionals can also tailor their careers to fit their personal interests, skills, and goals. 

Below we offer a few examples of more niche roles within the instructional design field, as well as the responsibilities and salaries that correspond with each title:

  • Instructional technology specialist: These professionals support faculty members with information technology in support of teaching and learning. Experienced instructional technology specialists earn an average of $60,493 per year.
  • Curriculum specialist: Curriculum specialists design and develop employee learning programs in alignment with organizational goals and training needs. These professionals earn an average of $75,286 per year.
  • Training and development specialist: Training specialists design, plan, and implement corporate training programs, policies, and procedures. Top training specialists earn an average of $61,210 per year.
  • Human resources manager: These professionals design, plan, and implement human resources programs and policies for staffing, compensation, benefits, employee relations, training, and health and safety. Experienced HR managers earn a median income of $103,899.

Though these salaries are already quite competitive, annual wages in instructional design are known to increase exponentially for senior-level professionals. Those looking to advance in their careers should consider a graduate degree from a top university like Northeastern to hone their abilities, gain relevant industry experience, and demonstrate their commitment and expertise to employers. 

How to Become an Instructional Designer

1. Hone your related skill sets.

In order to become an instructional designer or earn one of the related job titles listed above, you will first need to refine the soft and practical skills necessary to carry out the specific functions of your desired role.

Given the general responsibilities common across instructional design titles, you should aim to develop a strong background in the science of learning, understand instructional design models and design thinking, have multimedia training, expand your project management skills, and understand learning analytics, Mahler says. 

Learn More: 11 Top Instructional Design Skills

Additionally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*NET Online, the most baseline skills required for instructional design roles include:

  • Collaboration and interpersonal skills: Instructional designers must be able to maintain strong working relationships with teachers, principals, administrators, and subject matter experts.
  • Leadership skills: In many situations, instructional designers serve as mentors to the teachers and other instructors who use the materials that they have designed.
  • Analytical skills: Instructional design professionals must be able to evaluate the effectiveness of current teaching strategies and recommend improvements.
  • Technology skills: Instructional designers need to stay up-to-date with the latest technology trends in online learning and be proficient in the necessary software, such as various learning management systems, project management tools, and design software.

The growth of online learning also requires that those who currently work in education or training build the skills necessary to design in modular or online environments. K-12 educators, for example, may understand the teaching process, but not instructional design or how to design for an online environment. Nonprofits or government agencies may be interested in expanding their involvement in online and mobile learning, but might not have qualified individuals with the appropriate technical skill set.

2. Complete the required education.

The nuanced skill sets required for careers in instructional design require professionals to earn a master’s degree in eLearning and instructional design, Mahler says.

To find the right degree for you, be sure to evaluate your personal and professional goals in comparison to the learning objectives of the programs that you’re interested in. An ideal program should help you meet those goals by featuring a blend of the theoretical foundations of instructional design, as well as the practical knowledge you’ll need in the field.

Pursuing a Master’s in eLearning and Instructional Design at Northeastern

Northeastern’s program is a great example of one which has been developed to provide opportunities for students to put the skills they’ve gained in the classroom into practice before they graduate. Rather than being “highly theoretical, this is a skill-based core program,” Mahler says. “We include the foundational topics early on, but almost every course takes those foundations and moves them deeper into practice.” 

Another benefit of Northeastern’s program is the size, and the opportunity to tailor courses and curriculum to meet students’ needs that comes with it.

“The smaller size [of the program] provides a more personalized learning experience,” Mahler says. “I’ll do everything I can to help make it work for our students, because, as I see it, this is their program….If they come in with an idea, we’re willing to work with them [to make it a reality], because we’re small enough to be able to do that.”

Northeastern’s program is also rooted in experiential learning. As such, students gain hands-on experience by working on short-term, real-world projects that allow them to put their academic work into practice. 

The inclusion of these opportunities within the curriculum allows students to deepen their understanding of their work and gain exposure to relevant organizations, industry leaders, and trends that can be incredibly impactful to their success upon graduation.

Learn More: Networking Tips for Graduate Students

Earning a Graduate Certificate in eLearning and Instructional Design

Depending on your background and your specific career goals, there are also other options available to help you develop the skills and experience you need to break into the field. A graduate certificate in eLearning and instructional design is a great way to develop the skills needed to advance in your career without the commitment of a full master’s program. What’s more, at Northeastern, students who have completed the four-course certificate may also roll those credits up into the full master’s degree program if they so choose.

3. Develop an effective portfolio. 

To stand out to potential employers, it’s also important that aspiring instructional designers and those looking to advance their careers create an effective portfolio showcasing their work. 

“When somebody comes out of school or comes in for an interview, people want to see them walk through a portfolio of past projects and show how they operated in different situations,” Mahler explains. 

Your portfolio should not only include samples of your best work and provide a snapshot of your experience in the field, but also provide a look into your strategy as an instructional designer. Potential employers or clients are interested in seeing what you have created as well as how you went about doing so. “[You] have to be able to show a kind of system…and [demonstrate that you] understand how the components of that system worked together, even if [you] were only in charge of a small part of it,” Mahler says.

In order to curate an effective portfolio, though, it’s important that you have already had hands-on experience working on relevant projects. If you’re making a career change or are brand new to the field, there are several ways you can build up your instructional design experience before you’ve landed your first dedicated position in the field. For example, you may be able to find opportunities to get involved in an instructional design project in your current job. Similarly, if you pursue your MEd degree at a top university like Northeastern, you will have the chance to gain this kind of hands-on experience for your portfolio simply by completing your experiential learning.

Did You Know: Some career-focused degree programs will even dedicate time throughout the coursework to creating portfolios. For instance, graduates of Northeastern’s MEd in eLearning and Instructional Design leave the program with a completed ePortfolio. Past graduates have gone on to use their portfolios for job interviews, promotions, and doctoral degree applications. 

Taking the Next Step

Whether you’re looking to change careers, advance your career within the education field, or are looking to make an impact in the way people learn, instructional design offers you that and more. 

“It’s really a field of the future,” Mahler says. “If you like variety in your work, it’s the field for you because it’s constantly changing. That’s what makes instructional design interesting.”

In fact, one of the greatest aspects of instructional design is that it can be applied to a broad range of education-driven organizations including K-12 schools, higher education institutions, corporations, non-profits, and more. For this reason, people with a wide variety of backgrounds are able to excel in instructional design and create fulfilling, impactful careers. 

No matter your background, it’s important to have both your personal and professional goals in mind as you start your journey toward becoming an instructional designer. Find opportunities to hone your skills and build the experience you will need on the job, and be sure to find a degree program that will fit your specific needs.


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This article was originally published in June 2018. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.