A Traditional Ph.D. Does Not an Instructional Designer Make

Speaking for myself.

June 6, 2018

Pop quiz. You are responsible for hiring an instructional designer. Who gets the job?

Do you hire someone with a master’s degree in instructional design? Or do you hire someone with a Ph.D. in a traditional discipline (say, sociology/demography)?

To ask the answer should be to answer it. Of course you hire the instructional designer who has been trained to be an instructional designer.

A professional with training in the science of learning. An expert on the theoretical frameworks and research-validated methods for course design. Someone who has been immersed the literature on learning. A devotee of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). A skeptic of the efficacy of digital learning technologies, but a skepticism born out of deep expertise with the operation of the technologies and exposure to the data on their effectiveness.

So why is it that, so often, someone with a Ph.D. in a totally unrelated field (such as sociology/demography) gets the instructional designer gig? Why is it assumed that the act of getting a traditional Ph.D. is in any way preparation for the work that an instructional designer does? How is it that we assume that the classically trained Ph.D. will pick up the knowledge of the instructional designer on the job?

Would we ever do it the other way -- hire someone with an advanced degree in instructional design for that faculty job in, say, sociology?

Why am I so willing to declare so forcefully that a Ph.D. does not an instructional designer make?

Aren’t I running the risk of offending all those with Ph.D.s who are currently employed as instructional designers? (And I’m sure doing a great job of it.)

Simple -- I am that Ph.D. At an earlier point in my career, I was hired as a program manager/instructional designer mostly on the strength of my Ph.D. in -- wait for it -- sociology/demography.

Looking back, I realize now (and can admit) how dramatically unqualified I was for the gig. Almost everything that I eventually learned about how to be an instructional designer I learned from colleagues with training and degrees in the field.

Over the years I was able to learn some fraction of what my trained instructional designer colleagues knew, and to do the job at least OK. But it took me many years.

Are there advantages to having someone with a Ph.D. work with faculty on the work of an instructional designer? On course design? On syllabus consulting? On designing assignment for active learning? On the effective use of learning technologies? On all those, and many, many more things that instructional designers do with faculty?

Sure. Someone with a Ph.D. understands what the faculty member went through (if they also have a Ph.D.) in their training. A Ph.D. with teaching experience, or a former faculty member (as I was), also has a good understanding of the world of a professor.

These advantages, while real, do not close the gap between what someone trained as an instructional designer and someone trained in a traditional discipline knows about instructional design. About learning. About technology. About course design. About the scholarship of teaching and learning.

I’ve come to embrace the knowledge of instructional designers with the enthusiasm of the convert. I’ve given myself a two-decade course in the theories and methods of instructional design. Still, in comparison to my colleagues who have been trained in the discipline, I remain an instructional design dilettante. A fan. A tourist.

Instructional design is not a skill to be picked up along the way. It is not enough for a traditionally disciplined Ph.D. to have a passion for teaching and learning to be seen as a viable candidate for an instructional design job.

It is time that we recognize the unique levels of expertise of those with advanced degrees in instructional design, and direct our hiring for these positions to those who possess that hard-earned credential.

Do we have any idea what proportion of those working as instructional designers come to the work through traditional Ph.D. programs?

How can we counter the narrative that instructional design is a “fallback” position for Ph.D.s unable to land their preferred tenure-track job in their discipline?

Do you, like me, believe that instructional designers are the new rock stars of higher education?

Is your institution actively looking to hire instructional designers and having trouble finding enough candidates?

What was your path to working as an instructional designer?



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