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Plan your learning design career

The learning industry is so vast, it can be hard to navigate all the options available to instructional designers - much less decide which career paths to pursue. Do you want to be a generalist, specialist, or manager? Do you want to work in corporate, education, government, or nonprofit? How about working full-time, part-time, or independently as a freelancer, contractor, or subcontractor? And once you decide what you want, how does one make it happen?

Through this lesson, you will explore five essential steps to plan your instructional design career and land your next role.

1. Map your career.

The first step in your career planning is to map out your trajectory. Consider where you currently are in your career and where you aim to be. Research the learning design field to understand learning design career options and identify which align with your interests and skills. Setting clear, achievable goals and milestones will help guide your progress and keep you motivated. Last but not least, build a professional brand to attract opportunities that suit you.

During this phase, consider these reflection questions:

  • Do I want to be a generalist, specialist, or management?

  • What are my long-term and short-term career goals?

  • What immediate steps can I take to make progress?

  • Given my goals and the current landscape of this industry, what should I center my professional brand around? (e.g. accessibility, artificial intelligence, assessment strategies, client and stakeholder management, performance improvement, process optimization, technology and innovation)

2. Polish Your portfolio

Your portfolio can make or break your opportunities in this field, so avoid slapping samples on a site and calling it good. Use your portfolio as a digital marketing tool that promotes your brand, the key skills that support it, and samples that showcase your talent. As you think about the content and user experience of your site, remember to put yourselves in the shoes of recruiters, hiring managers, and clients who will review it while deciding whether or not to invite you to interview.

During this phase, ask yourself:

  • What do recruiters, hiring managers, and clients want to see in a portfolio?

  • How can I promote my professional brand through my portfolio?

  • What key skills enable me to deliver on that brand?

  • How should I structure my work samples: by skill, asset type, or impact?

  • How can I use storytelling techniques to showcase my work?

3. Write a winning resume

Your resume is often the first impression potential employers have of you. Like your portfolio, tailor your resume to highlight your unique value proposition, skills, experiences, education and achievements. Use specific examples to demonstrate your impact, such as projects you've led, learning outcomes you've achieved, and any awards or recognitions you've received. Remember, clarity and conciseness are key.

Consider these questions as you write your resume:

  • In addition to "required" resume content (e.g. name, contact information, summary, highlighted skills, employment history, education), what else might I include to differentiate myself from other candidates?

  • How can I apply the STAR (Situation, Task, Action Result) method to my past job descriptions?

  • What format will enable applicant tracking systems (ATS), recruiters, hiring managers, and clients to quickly scan my resume?

  • How long should my resume be?

  • Do I need to customize my resume for each application I submit?

4. Craft compelling cover letters

A well-crafted cover letter can set you apart from other candidates. It's your opportunity to tell your story, express your passion for learning, and explain why you're the best fit for the role. Personalize each cover letter for the specific job and organization, demonstrating your knowledge of their mission and how your skills and experiences align with their needs.

During this phase, consider these questions:

  • How can I infuse my professional brand into my cover letter?

  • What can I say if I have little to no related work experience?

  • If I do have experience, how can I illustrate my impact?

  • What calls to action should I include?

  • What else can I do to stand out from other candidates?

5. Outshine competitors in interviews

The interview is your chance to shine and convince recruiters, hiring managers, and clients that you are the right person for the job. Prepare by researching the organization and the specific role, and be ready to discuss your portfolio and past projects in detail. Practice answering common interview questions, but also be prepared to demonstrate your problem-solving and creative thinking skills. And remember, you are also interviewing the interviewer - so come prepared with questions!

As you prep for interviews, ask yourself:

  • Which interviewing style are they most likely to follow? (e.g. behavioral, situational, case, technical, cultural fit)

  • What questions will I probably be asked, and how should I respond?

  • How can I use the STAR method to structure my responses?

  • What questions should I ask them?

  • What are some appropriate ways to follow-up after the interview?

Summary and next steps

If you feel like planning your career and landing your next role is a lot of work, well it sure can be! Completing these five steps—mapping your career, polishing your portfolio, writing a winning resume, crafting compelling cover letters, and outshining competitors in interviews—can overwhelm learning professionals of all experience levels.

To achieve success through expert guidance, consider completing the practical exercises in my workbook, "Win the work: Plan your instructional design career and land your next role." This comprehensive resource is packed with structured activities, tips, samples, job aids, insights and more to help you navigate each stage of your career planning and application process. Using methods that I've applied over the last 20 years to land numerous full-time, part-time and freelance roles, it is designed to give you an edge in a competitive market and ensure you're fully prepared to attract and seize the right opportunities.


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