How I transitioned from academia to instructional design

written by JOE STUBEN
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How exactly does one jump from academia to the world of big tech? And how do you do that if you're in the humanities?

In late 2020, I walked away from a tenured position as an associate professor of history to take an instructional design job at a big tech company.

I won’t rehearse all the reasons here, but any academic reading this will understand what I mean when I mention burnout, work-life balance, and a desire for better compensation, proximity to family, and geographic mobility.

Ever since I changed careers, a small but steady stream of academics have reached out to ask me about how I made the jump and what was actually involved.

There’s lots of general advice for career-curious academics out there, but this post focuses on the nuts and bolts of what one academic did.

Let’s dive into the details below.

Step 1: Prototyping

I highly recommend the book Designing Your Life by Burnett and Evans.

The book encourages “prototyping” careers through informational interviews and through small experiments of doing the actual work to see if the career is a good fit. Before 2020, I had already done two prototypes. This was unwitting rather than strategic on my part (because I had not yet read Burnett and Evans).  

First, I taught myself basic JavaScript and explored what a career in web development might look like.

Second, I volunteered to write grants for a local non-profit to see how a career in non-profit fundraising might feel.

Both “experiments” were rewarding and enjoyable. It was a particular pleasure to bring in a couple grants. After dabbling with both types of work, however, I realized these jobs were not currently the right fit for my skillset, personality, and life goals.

Step 2: Career Coaching

In May of 2020, I turned to Adrienne Posner, a former Comp Lit PhD candidate who jumped to Google and who now offers consulting for academics looking to make a similar shift.

Adrienne encouraged me that I could land the type of role I was dreaming about—something in big tech on the west coast. She recommended that I investigate program management and instructional design (I had never heard of the latter).

We also went through the exercise of reducing my 11-page academic CV to a 2-page resume. All the academic accolades, course titles, and frippery gave way to succinct statements using the appropriate language of the business world.

Finally, she pushed me to apply to a job so that I could experience the low stakes of applying to a job outside academia. So, I applied and did not get the job. As Adrienne had promised, that outcome was surprisingly painless!

Step 3: Research

I googled instructional design and was immediately intrigued. The field straddled communication, teaching, and program/project management along with a development process that presented a lower bar than programming. Compared to academia, there were lots of jobs in the field, including ones at a big tech companies.

I read ID blogs, watched ID Youtube videos, and completed several LinkedIn learning courses that introduced me to basic ID theory and tools, including Adobe Illustrator and Articulate Storyline.  

Two key resources were:

Step 4: Networking and Skilling Up

As I researched and learned the basics of the field, I began to network (especially on Devlin Peck’s Slack channel) and I downloaded a free trial of Articulate Storyline. I joined online groups for IDs and followed ID content creators.

I studied the portfolios of successful instructional designers, began to orient my LinkedIn page toward instructional design, and started creating some sample Storyline projects.

As my friendships in the field grew, I started to ask for feedback and incorporate it.

I also worked through Devlin Peck’s xAPI tutorials and decided that some basic JavaScript/xAPI might help me either to differentiate myself or at least boost my credibility as an instructional designer. This niche skillset wasn’t a game changer, but I think it did give my portfolio and self-presentation some additional interest.

During this process, Devlin became an important mentor for me. The importance of a good mentor or mentors cannot be overstated.

Step 5: The Portfolio and Final Preparation

At this stage, I poured many hours into building a portfolio website using Webflow and then creating portfolio projects. Following Devlin’s portfolio advice, I built one “flagship” project and several smaller example pieces.

The portfolio demonstrated my understanding of adult learning theory, my familiarity with each step of the instructional design process, my ability to work with common ID tools, and my visual design sense.

Through networking, I had the opportunity to shadow a couple “real” meetings between an instructional designer and SMEs, contribute to the design of real projects, and assist (unpaid) with some Storyline development for a real client. Though this unpaid work was also not a game changer on my resume, it gave me additional comfort with the field and confidence.

I was still working fulltime as a professor, which included teaching online. I purchased my own copy of Camtasia for my online teaching and picked up a Techsmith Camtasia certification while making university course videos. This was a great way to integrate a tool relevant to my next role into my current role.

Once my portfolio had four completed projects, I further revised my resume down from two pages to one page. I was able to confidently place the link to my portfolio at the top of this resume and reference my participation on two actual ID projects.

Step 6: The Job Search

In the fall of 2020, five months after discovering instructional design, I decided to apply to some jobs. I sent off a dozen applications—six of them for different roles at the same company that eventually hired me.

These applications consisted of typical online forms and my 1-page resume. For these jobs, I did not add a cover letter (and none was requested). I had no inside connections with these jobs. I was rejected for all but one of them.

A week after I applied, a recruiter for one of the roles reached out to me. I then went through a screening interview and then a full day interview.

I approached this interview process the same way I had approached the academic job market—I studied. I looked up interviewee stories about the company. I rehearsed behavioral interview questions. Practicing speaking aloud is key, especially when the questions and conversations come from a new field.

I still stumbled in places during my interviews and some questions surprised me, but in the end those intense hours spent practicing paid off.

I was offered the job. I was actually taken a bit off guard by the suddenness of it all, but ultimately took the plunge and walked away from tenure and academia.

I’m glad I did.

Conclusion:

The transition was not easy. It required work. I could not just rely on a recruiter or hiring manager to recognize my academic achievements and then translate them to the job they were filling. Why should they, when they have plenty of applicants who do not require such translation and who present much lower risks?

With the help of many resources, a network, and a mentor, I made sure that I actually was suited to and prepared for the roles I was targeting. I'm emphasizing here the importance of all help that I had along the way. Don't try this type of career shift alone!

That said, the research was not harder than the research we academics do for our dissertations/monographs and the job search process was a low-stakes breeze compared to the academic job market.

If you are a PhD or PhD candidate reading this post, know that you have already overcome greater difficulties than changing careers out of academia.

Yes, it takes work to jump to instructional design. It is not merely a matter of finding the right job title and then voila, you’re already qualified for it. But also know that you can make the jump—and fairly quickly if you set your mind to it.

So, there you have it. That’s how I did it.

You can do this, too.

About me:
I'm a Learning and Development professional who writes about learning experience design, identifying and developing strengths, and the transition from academia to the corporate world.
My mission:
The question that stands behind my work:
How can we best discover and develop our strengths in order to flourish in our own lives and to build a better, more joyous world?
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