5 Takeaways from a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design

Okay, you caught me. My Master’s isn’t in “Instructional Design” per se, but that’s a bit less of a mouthful than “Instructional Systems & Learning Technologies,” which is the actual name of FSU’s 36 credit-hour program, While there, I completed coursework in instructional design, educational psychology, visual design, human performance analysis, and more. In this post, I sum up my top 5 takeaways from the experience.

1. Your portfolio is (almost) everything

When you’re starting out in the instructional design and eLearning development space, your portfolio is really important. No surprise, right? If you want someone to trust you to create their beloved learning experience, they’re going to want to see that you’ve had success doing so in the past.

This is no secret in the industry, either. Almost every article about how to “become an instructional designer” totes the benefits of a portfolio, and all of my early impromptu mentors echoed the same. So, as soon as I started the Master’s degree, I downloaded Storyline and got to building. That same semester, I landed my first client on Upwork. At the time, I had a Wix portfolio with only a couple of projects hosted.

Frustrated by the limitations of Wix, I rounded out my programming skill set and coded a new portfolio from scratch. This is when the magic started happening. That same week, I received a new inquiry that led to my highest-paying project at the time, and I felt much more confident directing traffic to my site.

Before I knew that I would have enough work to continue as an independent consultant upon graduation, I applied to several jobs. Time and time again, employers commented on my portfolio and seemed eager to get me to an in-person interview. Inquiries about new projects also continued to come in, even though I was still early in my Master’s and didn’t have much “real” paid work under my belt.

The main takeaway is this: if you can put together a visually appealing, functional portfolio with a few strong projects, you will be in a great position to land paid work..

One more note — experience may trump a portfolio if you’re looking at a pure instructional design role, but it seems that employers would like to see your past eLearning projects if you’re going to be working for them in a development capacity.

2. “Knowing it all” definitely helps

Having applied to several eLearning developer jobs and taken on a few pure eLearning development contracts, it’s safe to say that there is definitely work out there for people who have mastered a course authoring tool.

However, most of the work out there calls for you to be the instructional designer and the eLearning developer, making it essential for you to have a handle on the instructional design components. Fortunately, FSU’s program is amazing when it comes to anything instructional design or performance consulting related, so any interview / vetting questions about this were a breeze.

So, even if you don’t pursue a Master’s degree in the field, ensure that you’re well versed in common instructional design principles. For example, if you can hold a conversation about worthwhile objectives, course alignment, performance goals, and ADDIE, then you’re probably in the clear.

Or, if you don’t want to touch instructional design with a ten-foot pole, then you may want to try marketing yourself as an eLearning developer. Some projects will give you creative freedom to develop interactions as you see fit, others will require you to collect assets and do some “visual storytelling” in sync with some voiceover, and others yet will have you following very detailed storyboards to a tee. There’s not as much work or opportunity here, but some people find success with this.

Finally, even if you only want to develop eLearning, it helps to understand where it fits into the larger process so that you can speak about it educatedly. In my opinion, an ID Master’s degree is most helpful for teaching you the bigger picture. Not only will it teach you how to develop an effective learning experience, but it will teach you how to determine if a ‘learning experience’ is an appropriate way to meet an organization’s goals in the first place.

3. Going to class isn’t enough

As seems to be the case with most ID degree programs, the focus is on the instructional design skill set. FSU had some technology courses, but they were….behind the times, to say the least. Other classes mandated eLearning projects as final assignments, but they didn’t teach the tool — that part is up to you.

This approach makes sense. The technology that we use to create eLearning changes every few years, and it generally isn’t that hard to learn. Especially with online learning libraries like Lynda, the resources to teach yourself software are abundant.

That being said, you’re definitely going to want to teach yourself the software if you want to be competitive in this space. The best place to start is with an eLearning authoring tool, such as Articulate Storyline. This works very well in combination with an image- or vector-editing program, such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator.

During my first semester in the Master’s program, I went through about 80 hours of Illustrator tutorials on Lynda. I soon came to find out that I probably could have stopped after the 20-hour mark and been completely fine, but hey, hindsight is 20/20!

By getting a good handle on Storyline, learning how to edit vectors in Illustrator, and putting together a few interactions, I landed my first paid client. As you can imagine, though, the broader your tech skillset is, the more marketable and desirable you will be.

Since that time, I learned Camtasia, Photoshop, Construct 3, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, xAPI, Audacity, and a whole lot more. That’s part of the reason why I love this field so much, and if you love tech, then you probably love (or will love) this field too. Side note — I’m still waiting for the opportunity to get my hands dirty with some VR learning experiences!

So, as you can see, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time outside the class curriculum to learn a solid eLearning development tech stack. Most programs overlook this (and for good reason), so you need to take it into your own hands; and trust me, the earlier, the better.

Finally, on a slightly different note, you can also spend your “extracurricular” time networking with other professionals in the field. Building up my LinkedIn and speaking to other successful practitioners was crucial for my success, and it took TIME. Many students choose not to engage with the field as a whole, and they are focused primarily on landing that first job through the merit of their degree alone. This is a valid approach, but your chances for landing your dream job (or jobs) will be much higher if you are proactive with your success.

4. Network, network, network.

This adage is on everyone’s tongue in the professional world, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I began experiencing it for myself. Whether you’re looking for full-time jobs or contracts, it undoubtedly helps when other people know who you are, what you’re good at, and what you’re looking for.

In the beginning, when I was tailoring my LinkedIn to the industry and trying to sound like an authority when I didn’t have a whole lot of experience, I wasn’t sure if my efforts on the platform were going to result in anything worthwhile. However, as I started connecting with other professionals, having discussions about best practices, and getting invited to industry chatrooms, I realized that LinkedIn was a great place to be.

I also sometimes reached out to people in the field who inspired me: Kristin Anthony and Melissa Milloway, to name a few. They both were happy to share their expertise, offer guidance, and critique my work.

You never know where these relationships will take you, either. Over a year after I asked Kristin for advice about making it as a freelancer, she invited me onto her podcast to speak about my experiences working as an independent consultant full-time. When I was traveling out to Seattle, I was able to meet up with Melissa a few times, get dinner, and hang out. We’re now good friends, and both Kristin and Melissa have sent clients my way (HUGE thanks if either of you are reading this)!

During the very first semester of my degree program, I reached out to interview an alumni for one of my class projects. We stayed in touch, and she took me on as an eLearning developer for one of her projects when I was very early in my program. After wrapping that one up, she referred me to a few of her colleagues, and now I’m working on projects for them.

It’s AMAZING when someone in your network sends a client your way, which is how almost all of my work has been coming in lately. Even when people don’t work directly with you, they may learn of your skill set through social media, the instructional design Discord, or another online industry group.

Therefore, it’s important that you put yourself out there, share your process, connect genuinely with others, and give back to the community in any way you can.

5. eLearning is my jam

Completing a Master’s degree in this field is great because it gives you a chance to experiment. Going in, I had a general goal of working as an independent eLearning developer or consultant. I had dabbled in Captivate before applying to the program to see how I liked it, and I was a PowerPoint power user for as long as I could remember.

However, I knew that most instructional designers worked on a range of learning experiences, including face-to-face trainings, virtual instructor-led trainings, and self-paced eLearning, to name the most common. Since I already had a hunch that I would like designing self-paced eLearning the most, I decided to challenge myself and commit to developing an instructor-led workshop for one of my final class projects.

I conducted the analysis, researched extensively, crafted clear objectives, and wound up putting together a solid workshop on Gagne’s 9 events for my peers. They seemed to get a lot out of it, but it was telling when I realized that one of my favorite parts of working on the project was making the facilitator guide and student handouts look modern and pretty with InDesign.

This experience made it easy for me to focus entirely on eLearning moving forward, as it’s what I enjoyed most and what I was best at. I formed eLearning extraordinaire LLC and marketed myself accordingly. With a clear focus, it has been easier to differentiate myself, and I only attract the type of work that I am excited to be involved with.

So, your thing might not be eLearning; maybe it’s storyboarding, or maybe it’s planning an unforgettable classroom experience. Whatever it is, you probably won’t know for sure until you try it all and see how it makes you feel. For me, the Master’s class projects were a great place to experiment with this, explore my skill set, and recognize where I can bring the most value to the field.

Wrap-up

And that’s a wrap! Earning a Master’s in this field is a great way to master (no pun intended) the requisite instructional design knowledge, explore different mediums to deliver instruction, and network with other professionals. You’re going to need to put a lot into it outside of class if you’re aiming to reach the highest degrees of success, but there’s no better time to do so than when you’re still technically a student.

If you’d like to share your experience, ask me any questions, or just get to know each other, feel free to leave a comment, connect with me on LinkedIn, or send me an email (devlinpeck@gmail.com).

Thanks for reading!