Overqualified Instructional Designers?

I received two questions this week from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous. My experience with both is somewhat limited, so hopefully some of you will be able to help.

PhD/EdD = Overqualified?

Firstly, have you seen many folks with doctorates working in the field? Do you think a PhD/EdD makes you more competitive or does it make you overqualified? I would love to try working in industry (even if it were for free) just to get a feel for what happens outside of academe.

Personally, I have worked somewhere that a PhD or EdD meant your resume went directly to the recycling bin. It wasn’t an official policy, but the consensus was that anyone with a terminal degree would be bored working as an ID on our team. I’ve even heard of people feeling overqualified (or maybe too expensive?) with just a masters degree.

My impression is that the PhD/EdD is helpful in higher education and helpful for those who want to be director level or above in the corporate world. It isn’t something I’ve seen for instructional designers as individual contributors. This is where my experience is a little thin though; that’s more gut reaction than anything else. What have you seen or experienced yourself?

Individual Consultants versus Companies

Secondly, what is your sense for the field in terms of individuals working with companies as consultants? Does this happen frequently or is it mainly ID firms working with companies?

I am just really getting started with freelance work myself, as a side project in addition to my current regular contract. My career is probably unusual because I’ve been salaried more than even hourly contract. I know people are out there doing this as individuals. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s easier as an individual to freelance or consult with smaller companies, while large businesses tend to work through recruiters and bigger firms. I’m sure there are exceptions though, and I’m not even sure I have the trend right. Can anybody shed some light on this question?

52 thoughts on “Overqualified Instructional Designers?

  1. I am currently working towards my M.S. in ISD online through Florida State, and have been toying with the idea of pursuing a doctoral degree. My concern has been whether this would be a worthwhile investment, or if the terminal degree would overqualify me for positions. After reading this thread, it seems that the Ph.D. would only really be of use after years of practical experience working in the field. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, friends. They have certainly helped me to begin to refine my career goals.

    1. That’s probably a good summary of the conversation here. If you’re interested in working as an ID, a PhD isn’t likely to help you unless you have some experience first. If you want to research or teach, a PhD might make more sense. The PhDs I see working as instructional designers aren’t really creating courses as most entry-level positions entail; they’re doing high level learning strategy, running departments, or working in academia.

  2. I have only ever obtaining considered a Doctorate in Education and that doctorate would be of little value. And I have absolutely no use for a PhD.

    Having worked with the people who would deliver such a program, I know I my priority is Instructional Design, that their’s is being an academic, that I spend all my time evaluating new developments and ,typically, I am three years ahead of them. I find they are conformist, always in a hurry to lead where everybody has already been.

    Frankly, having worked with these people, the only point of a doctorate would be to get them to recognize me as a peer and not some hired hand. This is speaking from ten years of working in higher education.

    1. One of the very first SMEs I worked with said one reason he got his PhD was to protect himself from “people who use their PhDs as bludgeoning tools.” In his case, the PhD made perfect sense: his degree is in psychology, specializing in organizational psychology. He worked as an organizational development consultant for many years, and now he mostly teaches at universities. He definitely is not conformist or behind the times, but his perspective also includes years of working for a regional chain of businesses. He is one of those rare individuals who can balance both the academic side and the corporate consulting.

      I’d never hire him for an entry level instructional design job though. It’s not so much that he’s not qualified–I’ve written enough courses with him to know that he’s capable. It’s just not a good fit for his skills. He’s a great SME, teacher, and consultant; he’s not an ID.

      Last month, I republished one of my old ID careers posts on LinkedIn. It generated unexpected and heated debate about the value of PhDs, sparked by a comment from one of my connections. If you read the comments, you’ll see one person with a PhD arguing passionately that people with that degree are the “most qualified”; in fact, he doesn’t even seem to think a masters degree is relevant. Granted, he also seems to argue that “effective” means following the processes he learned at FSU–business results aren’t even on his radar. (Note that LinkedIn shows the most recent comments first, so to read the conversation in order you have to start at the bottom.)

  3. Hi Christy,

    As a current PhD in Instructional Design for Online Learning (IDOL) student and freelance eLearing instructional designer, I have not found where employers have seen a holding PhD as being overqualified. I have actually seen the opposite since entering a PhD program, and have had more inquiries by potential employers than I have in the past.

    My situation is a little different, because my background includes over 15 years in the corporate world, and an MBA in Management & Leadership. My passion for ID was discovered by taking advantage of opportunities to get involved with training as much as I could where I worked, and where I was eventually promoted to a course developer/instructional designer position. The passion was my main reason for pursuing the PhD.

    I did a lot of research before deciding on going for a PhD, and even looked into several certification programs, and was most attracted to the courses offered in the IDOL program. I’ve found that much of what has been learned translates well to the corporate sector.

    I think a lot of it goes back to how you articulate your goals to the employer (via the cover letter/resume, interviews, etc.), and the quality of the portfolio that you have set up. There are a lot of designers with higher ed degrees, but not a lot of them are able to show that they can produce the kind of high quality work that meets the employer’s needs.


    1. Brandie, I think as an individual consultant rather than a long-term employee at a company, it’s easier to make the PhD an asset rather than a hindrance. Someone with your experience isn’t going to fit in an entry-level ID position, regardless of education. However, I have seen people decide to get a PhD before getting any experience in the field. In that case, the PhD is overqualified for entry-level corporate ID jobs.

      I completely agree with you about being able to articulate your goals. How you tell your story makes a huge difference, whether you have no formal education or lots of it. Your portfolio comment is also right on. I have seen some pretty terrible portfolios, including some from people with degrees and lots of experience. If you have a strong portfolio, it helps you tell your story and show how effective you are. It gives you evidence to say, “My PhD helps me do great work. Here, let me show you what I can do to help you solve your problems.”

  4. A very interesting post and good comments. Perhaps I can add another perspective to the discussion.

    I have a PhD in Physics and recently added an Instructional Design Certificate to my collection of credentials. I have also started to work as a freelance ID – at least part time. I have always been a learning freak (not just in physics) and only in the past decade discovered ID, a truly fascinating profession.
    As an ID, I realized, I can learn a range of skills – and get paid for it! Most of all, many of these things are really useful (and I can be somewhat selective).

    Why would I lecture physics to a few hundred students a year if I can design elearning courses and reach thousands of people?
    Ok, learning the material is only part of the job – but the design part is something I enjoy a lot too. It is also not that different from what I was doing throughout nearly three decades of formal education.

    For many years, I summarized chapters, or entire books, squeezed the essentials into structured small booklets or even tiny cheat sheets (ID call them job aids..), “invented” mnemonic techniques (content chunking, associations, simplifications, acronyms, patterns etc..), developed mental models and images to understand the most outrageous things (e.g. quantum mechanics, random historical data), explained, discussed and questioned.

    In fact finding the right questions and reformulating my own and other’s questions was one of the many learning “secrets” I discovered.
    I mention these things as I believe a passionate learner should not be punished nor preferred for having a PhD in whatever field.
    It is true many academics are nerds, highly specialized and tend to theorize rather than doing things.

    The only thing one could say about a PHD is that he/she has spent decades learning stuff. It probably means that she is at least a good learner and does enjoy learning. While these are useful skills for an ID it is by far not enough. There are other traits that are essential and likely lacking with someone exposed to standardized education for a long time: communication skills, patience with people, diplomatic skills, sales and marketing skills, other interpersonal skills etc.

    I firmly believe teaching (learning facilitation) is the most advanced form of learning. It requires not only good learning techniques that work for oneself but additional skills like an awareness of the issues of your students and how to deal with these successfully.

    During my time in Cambridge,UK or in various Universities in California or here in Finland I met incredibly talented but also rather average learners. I found good teachers are generally much rarer than good learners. Like most people here, I do not see a strong correlation between good instructional design and academic achievements/titles; it could even be negative. In fact, most Universities hire their lecturers based on their number of publications rather than teaching skills – and bad teaching is not likely to create good teaching skills.

    Anyway, I think there will not be too many PhDs moving into ID as they can make more money doing different things. I am probably the odd one out with an unusual set of priorities and values. My clients do often value though that I can point out mistakes in the content – so there are some benefits 🙂

    1. Klaus, thank you for sharing your insights and your story. You’re correct that a PhD enjoys learning, and I do think that’s a prerequisite for instructional designers. One of the best parts of this job for me is always learning new things. I also agree with you that just enjoying learning isn’t enough; it’s necessary but not sufficient.

      I think people like you with a PhD in another field who then switch to ID are fairly rare. I have a friend with a PhD in microbiology and a Masters in Library Science who became an ID, although I think if she could find a job managing science resources in a university library again she’d go back to that work. It does give you an unique perspective.

      When you work freelance, there is a benefit to having a unique story and being able to show clients the value in that story. It sounds like you are able to explain your value and how your background makes you different from everyone else out there. Kudos to you for that, and best of luck to you as you continue on your journey!

  5. Hi Kristy,

    This is a question that I have asked myself for a long time. I currently hold a M.Ed in Instructional Design and I am in a Doctorate program. I migrated from the Corporate Training field to Higher Education. In the corporations that I have worked for, it was a requirement to have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, preferably a MBA. (I choose not to pursue a MBA because I am not interested in Business). I am currently an Instructional Designer at a community college. I know a few IDers who have both a ME.d in ID and have a MBA to be more adaptable in the corporate world.

    The reason why I want to pursue a PHd is because there needs to be more Evidence Based research in online education. Another reason is that I am the Higher Education field and I feel that I need to have an advanced degree in order to pursue Adjunct Faculty positions. (most Universities require a Doctorate)

    I do think that when someone is looking to continue their education they should look for programs that allow the student to get practical as well as academic education. This can be done with Capstone semesters and internships.

    I see the degree as a stepping stone, it shows that a person can learn, think critically, be open to “learning” experiences, and able to follow instruction. As with any other profession there is always a learning curve, just because Place A does it one way, doesn’t mean that Place B doesn’t do it another way.

    Not all Instructional Design programs are the same and not all the students in that program take the same classes. It’s possible that some might not have taken a class on how to design for Online– or even if they did, they might not have been exposed to “your” LMS or for that matter knowledgeable in your content generator.

    As for resumes — You can have anything on them, but it might be better to start sorting through Authentic Assessment, (1) does the candidate have the skills that you need, (2) can the candidate demonstrate those skills, (3) is the person a good fit for the position, the team, and company. Throwing a resume a way because they have too much education is just as bad, to me, as throwing away a resume because they don’t have enough education. The question you have to ask is where do they see themselves in 5 years — Yes, there are ways around this question — You can always tell when a person is saying — I just need a job —

    A good combination of degree, work experience, and skills match is always the best combination.


    1. Pursuing a PhD makes complete sense if you want to pursue a faculty job. As you noted, a terminal degree is required by most universities for teaching graduate programs (this is usually an accreditation requirement). The ID world also needs people to do the research to give us evidence to make better design decisions.

      What you’re talking about isn’t a typical instructional design position though. It’s great that you’re doing it–we need people like you. I think most people looking for a corporate job wouldn’t find the PhD as helpful though.

      1. For a typical ID position a BA or MEd might be appropriate, but if someone wants to move up the corporate ladder and wants a higher management position, a PhD might be helpful or even an MBA degree along with the MEd, because you have to know the business and management side of things. If some is applying for “entry-level” ID positions with a PhD it might be they need the real world experience to move in the direction they want to go in. If a person doesn’t want to move up, or teach, or be management, then I would agree that a PhD in instructional Design might be overkill.

        Thanks for the discussion!

  6. Thanks for the post.

    Thought I might be able to offer some clarifications on recurring themes in this conversation.

    First–the distinction between contracting and consulting. Contracting is when someone is hired for a period of time to prepare a reasonably well-defined piece of work, such as a course or a manual. Consulting is when someone is hired for a period of time to advise, usually on an ill-defined topic, such as the strategy for a learning group or re-working the processes in the group.

    Second–the role of different degrees, retired Georgia State University professor Verna Willis offered a neat little framework:

    — Associates (called a diploma in Canada and other countries): To support professionals in their work. (This is my addition to her framework.)

    — Bachelor’s: To do

    — Master’s: To lead (either as a lead designer or team manager)

    — PhD: To research (whether it’s academic research or consulting work (which, if the content is complex enough, requires as much research as any practical project) (Note–the EdD is supposed to be a “pracititioner’s PhD.” It is often viewed as a second-tier PhD, which is admittedly its origins; according to the urban legends I have heard, when people first proposed a doctorate for education, others in the academy said that the field wasn’t worthy of one and would not agree to allow a PhD in it. That’s no longer the case, and the two degrees have evolved to serve different needs.)

    In theory, then, an instructional designer might only need a bachelor’s degree to do his or her work and a master’s degree to serve as a leader.

    The reality, however, as has been reflected in the comments on our post, suggests that hiring is far more subjective. The preferences of the hiring manager play the primary role in determining who gets interviewed and who does not: perceived age, education level, experience, even the ethnicity of the last name of a prospective candidate have all been seen to play a role.

    These preferences also affect progress in the career. TWhen an organization identifies someone as high potential, they typically groom them for upper-level jobs. In some (though not all) organizations, that may include support for a prestige degree, such as an Executive MBA or an EdD, like the programs at Vanderbilt and George Washington Universities). Other leadership development opportunities also exist, such as membership in exclusive external groups, which further helps high potentials in the job market (and which might explain why you see so many people with advanced degrees in leadership positions in training).

    Saul Carliner

    1. Hi Saul,

      It’s a pleasure to see you here. I’ve read some of your work in the past, and you’re certainly one of those names I instantly recognize in the field.

      I agree with you in principle on the difference between contracting and consulting, but there’s a lot of long-term W-2 contracting that doesn’t fit into those divisions. In those cases, contracting really means “indirect employee” or “working through another company” rather than time-limited. My husband’s job is a good example of this. He works for an agency of the federal government that doesn’t run their own help desk; everything is contracted out to an intermediary company. He’s officially a contractor, not a federal employee, because he works through a vendor. However, running a help desk isn’t a time-limited project; it’s ongoing. He’s been there 5 years already, so it’s not the same kind of short-term contract we might traditionally think of as contracting. I’ve seen a lot of open-ended contracts in ID as well. The difference between well-defined and ill-defined is a useful distinction though.

      I hadn’t considered how people are groomed for higher level positions, but your description of the process makes a lot of sense. That matches what I’ve seen where more people in leadership roles have those degrees. It also reinforces the idea from this conversation that if you’re aiming to be an individual practitioner, the terminal degree is probably overkill.

      Thanks for sharing your detailed comment.

  7. Is the instructional designer I have had to work with overqualified? Let’s see…

    I’m a biz dev person that got an opportunity to create a series of regulatory training courses. I let my imagination go and kept listening to expert advice. Things turned out well. The courses are selling at a premium and people are giving me feedback that they are awesome.

    The problem was the instructional designer the company hired to oversee me. What a joke. She had and still has very little practical idea of what it means to put a course together and launch it, examples; multiple components like modular exams, scoring, course completion requirements such as completing modules, completing exams (with passing scores), loading into an LMS, managing the LMS, creating an ecomm platform, managing certificates, etc. She didn’t even have her own authoring tools when I met her.

    I am not an instructional designer but I’ve done it and with little help from her. She just kept sending me pdfs of points to consider to make this an adult education credit course (not in this cope). So…overqualified? No. Overbearing? Yes but no help at all. There. That’s my rant. Sorry to use you blog for my therapy. Thanks!

    1. Yes, my experience of working with such left me with adrenal fatigue and, I suspect, PTSD.

      There was this one ID in my team known to breakdown in tears in meetings when things weren’t going her way – and for being incredibly overbearing the rest of the time.

  8. I am a masters student of instructional technology to advance my career as an ID. masters and doctorate degrees are for creating theorists and researchers in the field to create more knowledge. There is nothing wrong with this. We need professionals who can write books in any given formats to enable our field to grow.

    1. Donald, I agree that there’s value in that work that is done within academia. We need people who are doing research and publishing (although I’ve read some terrific books by practitioners who aren’t in academia too).

      The original question here was more about whether those advanced degrees help you get a job outside academia. For that purpose, the results are a bit mixed.

  9. I have had the opportunity of working with two government agencies that employed Instructional Designers (IDs). The first was was with a national training center where the IDs worked closely with training coordinatos and subject matter experts who had conducted a needs assessment with its target population to determined course content. All three disciplines worked jointly on course development to include establishing goals and objectives. This established standard operating procedure, although it had some drawbacks, was able to produce results. The second agency was a different story. There was no established integration procedure or policy on how the trainers worked with designers. The trainers took any recommendations that the IDs made and basically through them into the trash, then proceeded to go back to the way things were done in the past. Management didn’t support the IDs and their attempts to consolidate work activites. Trainers used different training formats and dumped their final prodcuts onto the IDs to develop online training videos. No learning objectives were established and everyone seemed to be doing their own thing. Of course this type of thing varies from agency to agency and I can’t speak for the other government agencies but I do know that if you do not have management support or buy in not matter what level of expertise you bring into an organization, masters or doctorate, if you don’t have management support nothign is going to happen.

    1. Mark, you are correct–if management or the organization as a whole doesn’t support your work, it doesn’t matter what your degree or your experience is. You could have 20 years of experience and a great track record, but that buy-in is critical.

      That raises the question–how do we get buy-in in that sort of situation? Sometimes maybe it isn’t worth fighting the battle. There are times to walk away. I’ve certainly turned down some freelance jobs because there were too many red flags about the situation (and I’m busy enough that I can afford to turn down the work). If either a degree or experience helps you with the change management to convince people of what you’re doing, I think that puts you ahead of others in the field.

  10. My roots are in teaching but I made a leap into the technical side of information technology when the school where I taught began to expand its IT infrastructure in the late 1990’s. I found that I really had an aptitude for working with computer networks and did very well. As computers across the curriculum became popular I again made another move until I became involved with facilitating technology across the curriculum. I supported web and cloud-based software until I found myself getting into online training. Instructional design and technology, as a discipline, has me captivated and I have taken the plunge to get myself higher education in the field. My concern is if I will have difficulty finding employment when I complete the masters’ program. My dream is to freelance in the profession and not get into a formal employer, employee relationship. What do you think are my chances of making a living as a freelance instructional designer, training developer and/or online instructor? Those are the areas that interest to me.

    1. It sounds like you already have some experience with online training, so that’s good background. For instructional design, your portfolio will also be important–I assume your master’s program is helping you create one? If not, consider dropping out and finding a program that will. Seriously, if they aren’t helping you create a portfolio, they are wasting your time and money.

      At your graduate school, what support does the career center and the program itself provide as far as networking with business contacts and getting experience with real clients?

  11. Randall, Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. I have a master’s in professional writing/editing and a bachelor’s in education with 5 years experience teaching and 2 yrs working as intern writer/editor for the Arthritis Foundation. I’m considering the ID field since I’m unemployed and have been unsuccessfully sending out resumes and cover letters for almost two years. I wonder if I would be able to find employment if I take a continuing ed class in ID or go for a higher degree. It seems like everyone wants you to have years of experience in the exact niche. Plus I’m 56 and don’t know if anything will make me hire-able as long as there’s a surplus of people looking for jobs. Whether or not it’s admitted, I think there is age discrimination. I’ve tried for all kinds of government positions (though most of them are only interested in candidates who are already government employees)–writing/editing, communications, marketing, administrative, and even receptionist (I was a secretary before my degrees), but have gotten no bites on anything. Do you have suggestions that might help?

    1. I agree with you that age discrimination does occur. I wish I had a great solution to help you avoid it.

      At 56, I don’t know if a second master’s degree would be worth it. A graduate certificate, perhaps, since those can often be completed in a year. But a full degree seems like overkill in your specific case.

      I used to be in an online networking group called Ask Liz Ryan. It’s now a paid forum, so I’m no longer a member, but you might consider checking out her e-books or groups. She has a very different approach to job searching and resume writing. Since you’re not making headway with the traditional approach, maybe something completely different would be beneficial.

      You mention sending out resumes and cover letters. What are you doing for networking in your job search currently?

  12. As a Ph.D. (Instructional Design, Development, and Evaluation, Syracuse University) who has worked for the last 21 years as an instructional designer in government, higher education, and with Fortune 1000 companies through a custom-training consulting company, I have found my degree status to be extremely useful in terms of salary, position level, and credibility.

    When I’m in a position to hire instructional designers or course developers, I do the same as Randall, and look for candidates with experience AND advanced degrees.

    In fact, I do the same when I’m engaging with any type of professional – pediatrician, dentist, plumber, electrician, etc.

    1. Really? You have a plumber with an advanced degree, not one who went through apprenticeship and vocational training? Not that good plumbers don’t have years of training, but that training isn’t generally the same kind of formal book education as a graduate degree.

      Send me a link to your plumber’s website. I’m curious to see how that advanced plumbing degree is marketed.

  13. As someone who hires instructional designers for contract work I’ll tell you that certain clients request designers with MS or PhD degrees in instuctional design as well as examples of current field work. It is difficult to find them but they almost always provide the client with superlative results. The combination of advanced degree and real-world experience provides instant credibility to the infused contract designer who is usually tasked with assessing and upgrading in-house designers, facilitators, and trainers.

    As has been mentioned in this thread, the advanced degree ID professional seems to fill a specific niche of positions (including but not limited to higher education).

    As many posters have noted, the personality of the designer (and their ability to produce what the client needs) is the true lynchpin for success.

    Hence, based on my clients’ desires I seek training professionals with real-world experience AND advanced degrees. The salary range is commensurate with low level executives (and significantly higher than most tenured professor salaries).

    To see examples of the positions I often fill with contract support visit USAJOBS and read the job descriptions and qualifications for government work.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Randall. I was aware that many government jobs required a masters degree, but I didn’t know there was a market for PhDs there as well.

      This is why comments from readers are so valuable–I have no experience with government contracts, so I learn from everyone like you who joins the conversation.

  14. I’ve enjoyed reading your comments and have a related question:

    I’m looking for a permanent position as a part or full time instructional designer. On my online portfolio, should I include all my skills or create separate online portfolios for each type of skill?

    Background: contract jobs creating instruction in various media for companies, and a permanent position as a curriculum analyst at a business school where I did all kinds of work including business process analysis, instructional design, and training. Masters degree in Ed. Although I have development skills, I’m more interested in design and solving performance problems. I also love facilitating.

    I currently work at several different jobs. I teach various kinds of multimedia at a college. I teach improv and storytelling at an arts center. I create websites for small businesses. And I perform comedy improv, acting, singing, and dancing. I also love writing and want to add that to my income.

    I feel like my performing skills are related to my ID skills. (Ex: In my animation class, I teach the basics of storytelling and teach them how to create storyboards. Improv and facilitating both require thinking on your feet and being able to integrate everyone’s ideas.) I worry that including my performance skills will make me look unprofessional. On the other hand, I would be happier at a place where high creativity and humor is valued and maybe including my other skills would help me find the best fit. Or maybe there is some kind of job I’m not imagining now that would include my favorite skills.

    Any thoughts? I would love your feedback.

    I’ve included a link to my portfolio – a work in progress.

    1. I’m somewhat torn, April. In general, I think there is value in having some focus for your portfolio rather than trying to be all things to all people. However, as you said, you want to work with people who will value your creativity and humor.

      I think you should be who you are as a whole person–even though it will eliminate you consideration by some prospective employers. The employers who can’t imagine hiring someone who also does improv probably aren’t people you want to work with anyway. I think your creativity can be an asset though, and you need to find an employer who sees that.

      That said, maybe you can make it easier for people to connect the dots. How can you tell the story of how your background has led you to instructional design? I’m not talking about bullet points and job responsibilities–I’m talking about telling your story in a human voice, as a narrative, that shows how what you have done has gotten you here.

      I also think it would be great to have a concrete example or two. Some scenario-based learning showing exactly how you use storytelling as a tool for helping people learn would turn your creativity into an asset, rather than something “unprofessional” to avoid.

  15. Interesting question and discussion. For what it’s worth, I have an MA in Education and almost a decade of experience in instructional design and have still been struggling the last few months to find another contract – I work as a contractor, remotely. Though I’ve seen a lot of job postings calling for a BA in Education, less so when it comes to an MA and am wondering now if I should omit it from my cover letters entirely. It seems odd to me as it’s relative to what I do (adult learning theory-wise, etc.) and seems like it should help v. hinder? Great post, Christy. Thanks!

    1. In the US, I don’t think the masters degree should be a hindrance. As Karyn pointed out in the comments above, it can be a problem in the UK.

      Since you have 10 years of experience, why are you mentioning your education at all in your cover letter? You probably don’t need to talk about any degrees there. List both your BA and MA in your resume, and focus your cover letter on how your skills will help that particular company solve their problems.

      My guess is that something else is holding you back if you’re struggling with that much experience. Do you have a portfolio? Are you individualizing your cover letters for each job? Has someone else reviewed your resume and portfolio recently to look for errors that are eliminating you? Something is clearly going on, but I don’t think the degree is it.

  16. As an graduate student getting my M.S. in Instructional and Performance Technology, I felt I needed a masters (I have a B.S in Chemical Engineering and taught middle school for 5 years). I needed something that would get me in the door in the corporate world and would give me a firm foundation. I concur that a PhD should be someone who is doing research not a practitioner. I am also thinking about getting me a certificate in Web Design and Development to further enhance my skills…Great post!!

  17. Nice article – and relevant to me as I am considering taking on some part time contracting/consulting work in addition to my full time job. Ive been in the elearning/training field for about 10 years, mostly as an ID, but lately as a project manager. From my experience, my companies/clients seems reluctant to hire PHd types.

    In terms of contracting – I have seen individuals getting in at large companies. Often they start with small specialty firms (elearning vendors that also do staffing) to get in the door, then later do their own thing. Seems their are a lot of options for folks to carve their own path – just takes an entrepreneurial spirit and patience!

  18. Good post; good comments. For as long as I remember PhD has meant piled higher and deeper. Not to belittle anyone’s efforts, but the academic mindset often seems at odds with the understanding of solving messy, real life problems. I happen to be a self-taught (and no longer practicing) ID. With a very successful, virtual company that’s growing fast, one of my priorities in hiring is to find people who have taught themselves. It could be the piano, or Flash programming…but those who are autodydactic have also learned how to see things differently and make decisions organically, rather than by the book.

  19. Have really enjoyed reading all the posts – very thought-provoking comments!

    I don’t know many people with a PhD/EdD in ISD, but the majority of people that I know who work in this field have a Masters degree. It seems to be the minimum requirement in this area (NM), but another valued credential is the Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) offered by ISPI (www.ispi.org). I have worked with ISDers who are highly educated and not that great at ISD, and those who have tons of years of experience without the degree and are fabulous. Ultimately I think it comes down to the individual, their experience and portfolio, and the contacts they’ve made in the field. Having a colleague recommend you for a project is worth its weight in gold.

    I would say that in general it is easier as an individual to freelance or consult with smaller companies. As an independent consultant, I haven’t had much luck getting into the larger companies, other than government contract work.

  20. For what it’s worth, I have a bachelor’s degree plus 28? (can’t remember that far back!) years of on-the-job design experience. My knowledge of academic ID theories and models is from independent reading.

    My lack of a further degree was an issue with one company. I was working for them as a contract employee, and while they said that they liked the design work I was doing, they wouldn’t pay me designer rates because I didn’t have a master’s degree in ID. So I quit and started my own business, which not only pays me fairly but also gives me the freedom to test and prove my own ideas.

    I think that real-world practice should be a vital part of any ID program, if not the core. It would also be useful for ID programs to let people choose an academic or business track, rather than appearing to default to the academic approach.

    When I worked with newly degreed designers in the corporate market, they tended to assume that a performance problem is caused by a lack of information. They saw their role as using learning theory to make the information they had been given easier to understand and remember.

    This approach is suitable to traditional academia, where the goal truly is to get info into people’s brains, but it can be ineffective or even harmful in the business world, where we want to change behavior. Getting knowledge into people’s brains won’t necessarily change their behavior. Sometimes the problem has very little to do with knowledge at all.

    1. People looking to get into instructional design work might also consider what type of position they want to get–“pure” design or design + production.

      Kevin listed some useful course production skills that increasingly seem to be part of the designer’s role but that some people (I, for example) don’t have. I’ve usually had design-only gigs in which someone else does the production, except for the interactions that I produce for my blog and some Hypercard and BASIC projects that I built at the dawn of time. Design-only jobs are probably more likely to be found in large organizations or with elearning firms.

      So if your favorite part of the job is figuring out ways to solve a performance problem, you might avoid firms that believe that instructional designers should have a long list of production skills. Those firms might define “instructional design” as “converting information into courses,” which can be a dark and unhappy place for a performance-consultant type. Of course, the reverse can be true for people who enjoy producing materials.

  21. I don’t think it’s ‘overqualified’ so much as it is ‘over educated.’ There are so many layers to this industry that no one person can master all the skills to design, develop, and deliver quality eLearning consistently and effectively.

    One can prove to be qualified in both ID and Graphics, but does that make them more or less qualified with someone one who has writing, voice, and video skills? Not that every eLearning course is chock full of every whizamajig, but if one person had good project management, ID skills, writing, audio narration, video, graphics, animation, development, and programming skills…does that make them ‘overqualified?’ Or does that make them the dream person you want on your team?!

    Overqualified in the context of this question I think refers to someone who has a PhD or EdD and is applying for jobs that, well don’t require that level of knowledge. I’ve been in corporate for over 15 years, and those who climb to the top are those who spent time in the trenches, made things happen, and got their hands dirty. Sure, there a lot of Masters degrees, but I’m not sure I know anyone in corporate with a PhD or EdD.

    On the other hand, those with a PhD and EdD are those that stretch the thinking for the rest of us. We’re in the trenches digging, and they’re shaping the path for us on where to dig – like Cathy, and the Ellen Wagner’s, Jane Bozarth’s, Clark Quinn’s, Karl Kapp’s, and Marcia Conner’s of this industry. If not for them (and many others) I don’t think our industry would be where it is today…and where it’s going.

    As for freelance, Tom nailed it! I don’t have time to market because of the repeat business and word-of-mouth. Simply, get embedded everywhere you can to build a PLN (personal learning network). If you can, bet an online portfolio put together and shamelessly plug it when you can…if you don’t have one (yet), be prepared to share some of your work when a potential client calls.

    Finally, I agree that corporations tend to go with big eLearning firms over individuals. In my experience, it’s not the quality of work so much as it is a ‘team’ of people to get the project done. What would take me two months would take a firm two weeks. It’s all about speed to market!

  22. This is a great post, thanks. I have seen a number of ID job posts locally and interestingly the min requirement is a degree or masters in ID. Sometimes it also depends on the need for breaking the borders to get into the job market overseas especially when there is a lack in demand for ISDs where the person is currently living. So, I would be interested to know if employers would appreciate those with work experience as well as a graduate degree in ID? I agree with the need to find a course that has a balance of both theory and practical exercises that would only add value to ones ID portfolio.

  23. This is an interesting discussion about which I also have experience of. I nearly wasn’t offered a very good L&D job at Barclays Bank (for which I didn’t apply as I was sort of ‘head-hunted’ for it) because the chief man thought that as I had a B.Ed. and a M.Phil I wasn’t sufficiently business/corporate savvy. I was offered the job, accepted it and then in a short time proved that having academic qualifications were not a constraint in that I could bring quite a bit extra to the party. However, the initial reaction did make me think ….

  24. Thank you all for the comments; it’s great to hear from multiple people. I’m learning from all of you.

    Christiana, it’s interesting that you say the PhD is more for yourself than for a job. The reader who asked the question has told me the same thing; he’s doing the degree because he enjoys it, even if he’ll never use it.

    Karyn, I suppose I’m thinking more VP and CLO than perhaps director. A quick search on LinkedIn found a number of US-based CLOs with terminal degrees. Almost all had at least a masters degree, maybe 30-40% had a terminal degree (PhD in organizational psychology, EdD in Adult Education, etc.). I saw one or two who had “some college” but probably no bachelor degree. But your experiences in the UK have obviously been different.

    Regardless of the fact that I see some of those advanced degrees out there VPs and CLOs, I’m thinking based on everyone’s comments that they didn’t get there because of the degree.

  25. Don’t have much to add to this other than to say, I’m with Cathy on this one.

    If I saw a PhD on a resume for an ID position, my gut reaction is to think of pointless conversations about what real elearning is at the expense of getting courses created. 🙂

    I’d suggest that it’s critical to develop a strong portfolio that’s diverse and shows a range of capabilities and experience. Then it’s all about building the right types of connections in the organization.

    Many independent consultants don’t have time for marketing so a lot of the business is repeat or word-of-mouth. Also develop a strong network of allies, such as programmers, graphics, etc. people can you go to or hire quickly.

  26. To clarify, I’m not saying “work with smaller design firms and then steal their clients.” I’m saying “work with smaller design firms to learn how to work with big clients, and then go get big clients of your own.”

  27. I design elearning for corporate clients and have occasionally hired other designers. To be honest, if I saw an instructional design Ph.D. on a designer’s résumé, I would be skeptical that the person had the experience and business mindset that my clients need.

    I’d need to see samples of business-oriented design work and otherwise be strongly reassured that the person understood business performance issues, could ask clients the right questions, and worked quickly and decisively. This concern comes from some experiences I had working with academically trained designers who were entering the corporate world.

    As I think the original poster suspected, it might be a good idea to get some corporate experience first before applying for jobs. A good ID program should have business apprenticeships or other real-world projects, so that might be one place to look for opportunities.

    It might also be possible to get a job with an elearning development firm that works with both academic and corporate clients, and ease your way over to the corporate side.

    Individuals just starting out as independent contractors might want to work first with some elearning firms to learn how to work with big companies, then go off on their own to work directly with the end client. At least, that’s what I did.

    Once you go off on your own, you could work with big or small firms. What matters most is the contact that you make inside the client company, who will be your champion and often sidesteps the vendor-approval process.

    If you choose a strong niche (health care, for example) and use a blog, speaking, books, etc. to establish your credibility in that niche, you could work with companies of any size. Your goal is to catch the attention of the managers who need good design, not HR.

    I personally wouldn’t go through a recruiter, because then you’re treated as a commodity and not chosen by the client for your perspective and ideas.

  28. I fit into the (almost) phd instructional designer. I fully admit that I don’t need it. Might even have to leave it off my resume. Getting it is entirely personal. I’ve always saw myself with one. I love learning! I want to get another!

    And yes it could help me be director of something in higher ed but certainly not required.

  29. I think I can offer some perspective here. I have spent almost my entire career in the corporate world. I recently saw an ad for a US based senior ID position calling for a minimum of a Masters’ degree, preferably a doctorate. I was stunned. At most, posts usually ask for ‘degree or equivalent’. I have certainly not found my Masters’ degree to be even slightly helpful. I know very few other IDs with Masters’ degrees and none with doctorates.

    Also, your notion that a doctorate would help people to reach ‘director level or above’ in the corporate world is way off base. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that there are more people at that level with nothing more than a secondary school education than with a doctorate. Way, way more.

    Academic qualifications are not really highly regarded in the corporate sphere. They are seen as the province of the geeky specialist, not the leaders of industry.

    In my last job, my boss called me a ‘bloody academic’ because I was getting my masters’. He had no post-school qualifications. In the job before that, my MD said he wouldn’t even look at a CV from someone with a Masters’ degree. He wanted someone who had learned from life, not books. He too, had no post-school qualifications.

    Far from getting you the job in a corporate environment, a PhD is more likely to set eyes a-rolling.

    As to the company/individual thing… Being on your own means finding the balance between working on the business and working in the business. I failed at that and my business went under. IDs often get work on large projects through agencies. Small companies seldom have the skills in house to do any part of the process, so are more likely to outsource the whole thing, rather than just the ID. However, there are exceptions. Some learning providers also take on freelancers on fixed term contracts when they need to scale up to meet increased demand.

    1. Many large corporations are requiring Masters in Instructional Design, and recently, the CPLP. All you have to do is look on Monster, CareerBuilder, or Indeed.com to verify this. Having taught corporate training and academic training for a decade, this is easy to verify. I have my Masters in I.D., and yes, I plan to pursue my doctorate. Why, because I want to teach I.D. Does this make me overqualified? No, this allows me to teach on the academic level. In the 1980’s, an A.A.S. was considered all you needed in the corporate world; however, times have changed and so have the educational requirements.

      1. Many corporations say they require a masters degree, but most will ignore that requirement for the right candidate. The last time I searched on Indeed, less than 1% of the job listings for IDs in the US mentioned CPLP as either a requirement or preference.

        For teaching ID, I completely agree with you that you need a PhD. As for the corporate world, I think you may be confusing what organizations dream about (and therefore list in job openings) and the reality of who gets hired.

        1. I have been a teacher for 5 years at the high school level and prior to that I was a stay-at-home dad for 10 years, a chef for 10 years and a horticulturist for 6 years. I have 2 BFAs and recently a MEd. in instructional technology. All the jobs I am applying for in the IDT field require a minimum of 3 to 5 years experience and I keep getting turned down because my experience is in secondary ed. How do I get a job in the field to gain experience, if they require experience to get the job? I am an autodidact and extremely fast learner with very diverse world experience, yet I can’t even get an interview to communicate my assets.

        2. Bart, do you have a portfolio of your ID work (not just your art)? That’s one way you can demonstrate your skills. If you include samples geared towards a corporate audience, that shows your skills will transfer. You don’t need full courses; even 2-3 screens can be enough for a sample.

          You might be interested in my post on Getting Experience Before Your First Job. Volunteer work can give you portfolio examples and some of the experience to get your foot in the door.

  30. My 2 cents….8-)

    I don’t think a PhD or any degree for that matter directly correlates to how qualified you are. I’ve seen designers with advanced degrees who were not very good at it and others with no degree who were fantastic. Personally, all a degree means for me when it comes to ISD is that they could pass the academic courses required for the degree and that doesn’t always translate to the real world where things are generally much more “messy” than all the academic, theoretical stuff you encounter in a degree program.

    As for working with companies, I think individuals probably have better luck getting work with smaller companies while large companies often have requirements for “preferred vendors” etc which make being tied to a consulting agency/company beneficial when trying to get work with them.

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