Up the career ladder . Mixed media
ATD Blog

Career Pathing for Instructional Designers

Monday, October 24, 2022

Providing employees with opportunities for learning and growth can improve your organization’s retention and increase employee productivity. However, according to research, 80 percent of professionals don’t think their current employer provides growth opportunities. Part of my research looks at the competencies instructional designers need to lead successful design projects and where they learn these skills. Instructional designers have a wide range of skills—beyond design and development—that are beneficial to not only their role but future roles in learning and development, leadership, and beyond.

If you’re an instructional designer, you might be wondering what options you have for growth in your career, especially if your employer isn’t making a path forward clear to you. I’m going to break some possible career avenues down in this post.

Upskill and Grow

Perhaps the most obvious path for an instructional designer is to continue to grow their skills and lead successful projects to be promoted to a senior instructional designer role. But instructional designers can also specialize in specific tools and narrow the focus of their roles to become, for example, an e-learning developer or a multimedia specialist. If someone has a lot of experience with technology or learning management systems (LMSs), they could become a learning engineer, using learning science and quantitative data analysis to make decisions about learning experiences and programs. For those who have done a little bit of everything but enjoy facilitation, they can become trainers. Some L&D teams even have dedicated project managers who take care of logistics and planning, program managers who lead curriculum, and people who specialize in evaluating the effectiveness of learning.

Depending on the organization, there can be many different roles on an L&D team, offering people the opportunity to specialize their skill set. If this is the kind of career path you’re interested in, you can plan to spend time upskilling in a particular area. You’ll also want to ask your manager for opportunities to work on projects that require more expertise, so you can practice and build your skills.

Here are some ways to upskill and grow:

  • Actively seek out and explore new technologies.
  • Experiment with new types of solutions, content, and experiences.
  • Try new methodologies, ways to evaluate, or ways to design learning.


Be the Leader

As instructional designers, we manage people and lead projects often. If your goal is to lead a team one day, you might work your way up from instructional designer to senior instructional designer to instructional design team lead. Once you’ve had some experience leading one or two people, you can become an L&D manager. You can even work your way up to a director of learning or a chief learning officer position. Being a leader requires a shift in responsibilities—as you move from a role that is more about planning for the future and seeing the big picture rather than doing the everyday work.

Becoming a leader of people is a big step, and it requires learning about leadership and what it takes to bring people together to get things done. If this is the career path for you, let your manager or supervisor know, and ask them to mentor you. If you have a good relationship with your boss, they’ll be willing to help you grow your skills and may even give you stretch projects so that you can practice leading.

Here are some ways to be the leader:

  • You don’t have to wait for a title to lead: Show initiative, push for progress, and help your colleagues just like a leader would.
  • Find a mentor with experience managing people.
  • Think about how your existing skills can translate to being a manager.


Try Something New

Instructional design can prepare you for many roles outside of L&D as well. It might take some extra upskilling, but L&D folks make their way to other areas of the business. You can find a role in an adjacent career with similar work to what you’re doing now, or you could even use your transferable skills to move into another field.

If you’ve created programs and professional development for employees, moving into employee experience might be an easy transition—you’ll get to help employees through the different phases of the employee lifecycle, from hiring through departure. Other adjacent moves would be in HR, perhaps in recruiting or employee relations, or in organization development, where you could help with performance and talent of employees.

If you’re looking for something a bit different, there are opportunities in other fields as well. If you spent time on visual design or writing, you might find yourself on a marketing team. If you’re interested in designing amazing learning experiences, you might want to get into user experience (UX) design. If you’ve become an expert on your business and enjoy interacting with people, you might even get into sales.

If you want to make a career shift to another area, you should talk to your supervisor or manager first if you have a good relationship with them. You may also decide to start a new career at another organization, but you’ll want to make sure that you’ve upskilled before you start applying for jobs. You can also create your own path and work as a freelancer or join an agency where you’ll get to work with a variety of different clients and on different projects that will help you progress your skills quickly; you can also take what you’ve learned and start your own business!

Here are some ways to try something new:

  • Involve other areas of the business in your projects to codesign solutions, giving you a chance to see how they work and what skills you need to fit into their roles—it also helps you build relationships.
  • Find free courses to improve your skills.
  • If you’re comfortable, you could speak to your boss about a stretch assignment in another department to gain experience.

Hopefully, this has given you some ideas about where you might go next. The best way to find new opportunities is to work with a great manager or supervisor on a professional development plan. Unfortunately, not everyone works for organizations that support upward mobility. If that’s the case for you, networking with people outside your company can be a great way to find something new that fits your goals. Reach out to folks who are in the types of roles you aspire to, and ask them about their journey. You can use their stories to help you determine what skills you need to work on and make your own professional development plan to land that dream role.

About the Author

Based in Cleveland, Ohio, Heidi Kirby, PhD, is a customer education manager, co-founder of Useful Stuff (, and host of the BLOC (Building Learning and Organizational Culture) podcast for L&D professionals. She got her start as a college English professor but has since worked as an instructional designer for NASA and an L&D leader in the tech industry. She also teaches graduate-level podcasting. She is passionate about helping aspiring and L&D professionals be their best and helping L&D teams become more inclusive and efficient.

1 Comment
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Thank you, Heidi for a great article! I believe you covered almost every avenue for an ID and then some.I would maybe add to the technology portion to learn about Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) and Mixed Reality (MR) which can open up more opportunities, for example gamification. Choosing the "gamification path" opens another door to creating not only games for learning but games in general. This option assumes one is exceptionally technical and loves gaming.
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