Recently I had the honor of participating in a panel of student-professionals at ASTD 2014. I was excited about this panel entitled, Differentiate Yourself: Why a Master’s or PhD Matters and How to Complete One, because I know a lot of folks in the instructional design field are curious about whether or not an advanced degree is necessary. Obviously circumstances are different for everyone and this is a highly personal decision, but let me share why going back to school was the right decision for me.
My BS is actually in mathematics (which I swear isn’t as boring as it sounds) and I had a concentration in secondary education. Not long after graduating, I decided to pursue an MS in mechanical engineering. When I was almost finished with this program, I realized that this was not what I wanted to be doing. I made a difficult decision and left the program, with lots of student debt, disappointed parents, and no degree.
I spent the next ten years working in education in some way or another. Just over five years ago I ended up in Washington, D.C., where I began working for the local Girl Scout council. This was really the first time I was primarily working with adult learners. Yes, adult learners at the Girl Scouts. You see, I was a volunteer development specialist, which meant I had my hand in any and everything having to do with, volunteers and their “development.” As part of helping these volunteers develop, I began creating e-learning and realized I had a knack for it and really enjoyed creating in this way.
I soon decided I wanted to focus on instructional design and e-learning full time, without the other volunteer management duties. But a year and a half into my job search I still hadn’t received even an interview.
Donna is a colleague of a friend. She was hiring for a job that was exactly what I wanted to do, but I didn’t meet her basic qualifications for an interview. She was gracious enough to do an informational interview with me and confirmed my worst fears at the time. I really needed to go back to school to get an advanced degree in instructional design if I wanted to be competitive in the ISD market.
Donna recommended a program she had gone through at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). I actually live in Maryland, so the possibility of in-state tuition was appealing. I was determined not to take out any more student loans and I knew from previous experience that getting financial assistance and scholarships at the graduate level could be tough.
I also liked that the program was geared towards working professionals and was mostly asynchronous online with synchronous courses taking place in the evenings. While I missed the in-person interactions, I knew online learning would work best for me as the campus was about an hour drive from my house, and we are a one car family.
I applied, was accepted, and soon started taking classes; but the benefit was even more immediate. Before I even started my first class (but after I added “MS in progress” to my resume) I was called for a job interview. I got the job and am still with that company. They are even reimbursing part of my education expenses.
Outside of the getting-more-and-better-job-offers benefit, I have found that this degree program has broadened my horizons in other ways. I spent several years learning all I could about instructional design and e-learning, but didn’t have any feedback from someone in the field. Consequently, I have seen the quality of my work improve immensely since starting this program. The program has a focus on performance improvement, and I love the way that has changed my focus and perspective on instructional design. I also find that I am more confident in my work and recommendations, because I know I am making sound, scientific decisions. Sometimes I even get to double dip—using work projects for school projects, which is a great benefit to both me and my employer.
Starting a degree is a big undertaking, but when asked at the panel what one thing I wish I had known before starting my program, my honest answer was, “That it would be worth it.”
Being a student-professional is tough. I am scrimping and saving both time and money, but the benefits have far outweighed any sacrifices. I only wish I had known, and started sooner!
About the author: Allison Nederveld is an instructional design and e-learning developer at Engility Corp. She is currently pursuing her MS in instructional systems development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You can connect with Allison and read her blog at abnederveld.com.
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