Community Discussion: Do You Need An Instructional Design Degree?

April 06, 2019

Today our TLDCast discussion was focused on whether or not an instructional design degree is required to be successful in L&D. We had a nice split of guests: two of them had L&D related degrees and two didn’t — but had degrees outside of our industry. Also, we had one guest that doesn’t have a degree and is currently working on getting his undergrad.

The guests were:
Bethany Paterson – has non-L&D Degree
Alan Natachu – has non-L&D Degree
Alex Godinez – currently enrolled in a degree program, no previous degree
Cara North – L&D Degree
Chris Stadler – L&D Degree

So Why the Conundrum?

Instructional Design has been around for some 75 years, but many still wonder what instructional designers — who are only now just gaining acceptance in higher ed and corporate training — do.

Is it the changing landscape of the role that lends itself to this idea that it’s easy to circumvent a related degree? Is the nature of this career going to completely shift so that it’s a combination of fields, versus one that is specifically L&D?

An Instructional Design Degree is Not Vital

What we found in this conversation is that there are is no single path to success that is superior to others. Bethany and Alan both are successful Instructional Designers without a related L&D degree.

Bethany has a degree in medical anthropology. Her academic strength is in research and analytics. She’s found success with a large coffee distributor in the UK by using these skills to create and optimize training.

Alan received his degree in creative writing and has a background in film-making and acting. He’s found success in building storyboards and creating learning sequences that help his students succeed.

They both agree that having a degree is important, but you don’t necessarily need an L&D related one — at least to get started in this industry. They use resources like conferences, webinars, and networking to supplement what they already know.

Similarly, Tom Kuhlmann of Articulate has posted on his blog that “You don’t need a formal degree to learn the skills required to build good eLearning courses. There are many books and resources available that will provide the same information you’d get in any formal program. Combine that with the easy authoring tools and rich informal learning networks available today and you’re all set. Besides many people with degrees tell me they didn’t learn how to apply what they learned in their programs.”

A Degree Definitely Helps

Cara North has had a fascinating trajectory in Learning and Development. After an undergrad degree in Journalism and Poli Sci, she moved on to an MA in Workforce Development and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Educational Studies. She admits this path isn’t easy, but having an academic knowledge of Instructional Design principles allows her to cover a wider breadth of L&D concepts and challenges more quickly. And supplementing that with association resources and social networking enhances her professional development even more.

Chris Stadler has a fascinating background as well. His undergrad is in computer science and he has an M.S. in Instructional Technology. The combination of both degrees has been potent: He is currently the Director of Learning and Development at a large biopharmaceutical company. Like Cara, he also utilizes external resources to maintain his professional development and stay on top of what’s happening in L&D. It’s obvious that his academic achievements were well worth the effort.

Having An Impact

One of the most interesting parts of this broadcast was the inclusion of Alex Godinez. Alex is currently working on getting his degree in Communications to supplement his role as a Senior Member Relationship Trainer at a large credit union.

Alex notes that his academic work is already having an impact on his organization. It really isn’t just about having that piece of paper (a diploma), it’s also about having a level of achievement that allows you to have a larger impact on the individuals you’re trying to help.

It’s Worth It

The general consensus of our guests is that having an Instructional Design degree is and would be worth it. If cost weren’t an issue, both Bethany and Alan would pursue an L&D degree of some sort. And both Cara and Chris are happy with what they’ve achieved.

Chat quotes

There were some really interesting Chat messages in this episode. Posted below are some noteworthy messages – both for and against having a degree.

Also, take a look at the types of degrees and backgrounds the audience has. There is a tremendous amount of diversity in the chat. Very impressive!

Here are the quotes:

“Started and never finished…both programs didn’t real live up to expectations. The methods of instruction didn’t even model the theories and ideas we were studying. I just didn’t see value – not so much in the degree itself, but in the experience.” — Christopher Yellen

“Degree can be worth it, but not 100% necessary.” — Eric Rowland

“I love my education because I loved what I was studying. But did I need it to do what I do? No. My certifications have made more of a difference. — Tracie Cantu

“College program helped me build my network/connections and built my foundation of knowledge. Lots easier to network today. I graduated early 90s” — Eric Brott

“I would be a PERMANENT student if I didn’t have to worry about $$$” — Tracie Cantu

“I decided on my masters degree in ID, because I didn’t want to lose my student job running a pool hall” — Quetzalcoatl Cortes

“I work a lot with medical content and meetings with clients have everyone with a PhD in it… that’s the only time I say I have one (other than when dealing with a judgmental person in a bank trying to figure out my marital status)” — Dominika Bijos

“Good learning design includes a good narrative – that is what helps us connect to the content. Love seeing creative writers and videographers in the field!” — Christina Archer

“A friend I know had to remove his two PhDs off of his resume in order to get a job in corp. I guess there’s a stigma there as well.” — Quetzalcoatl Cortes

“my alma matter just released a PhD program designed for working for professionals…. and it is so tempting, but I don’t want to pay for it” — Christina Archer

Do you have a degree? Has it helped you in your career in L&D? Please feel free to leave a comment below or in our Slack group at

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By Luis Malbas

Founder, Wrangler, Floating Tool Bar of all things TLDC.

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  1. Avatar

    I agree with pretty much everything stated. As an instructional designer, I didn’t need the degree, it it was a differentiator betwee orher candidates and myself when applying for jobs. But not mandatory. So for that reason, I wouldn’t get the degree. Most of the ID teams I’ve worked with, a small percentage of them had degrees. I’d they ever wanted to be considered for a Senior level ID role, they would need a lot of years to replace the fact they don’t have the degree.

    However, when I made the shift into management, I needed the degree. It was an expected element to every Learning, OD type leadership role and has been with every company I’ve worked for. The same has been true for having my MBA. For certain roles, it was expected.

    So…if you want to do ID as an individual contributor for your career and are fulfilled by that, don’t get the degree. Just deepen your knowledge of specific skills that make you an incredibly valuable player. But, if you want to move into management, at some point you’ll need that degree.

  2. Avatar

    Hi all– Thanks for hosting this discussion and for posting it for us! One perspective missing: is the “ID by Default”, the way many of us have come to this work. Top performers transformed to “trainer” or ID. You know the sitch, “you are really good at xyz, so why don’t you create and do training?”


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