3 Ways to Earn More Money as an Instructional Designer

instructional-designer-salaryRecently I received an email from someone on LinkedIn who was curious to know more about instructional design, and how to break into the industry.  These questions are always hard to answer since getting into instructional design is dependent on many factors.  Nonetheless, I did my best to provide practical advice given their background.  Of the three to four questions I was asked by this individual, one question in particular really struck me:  “How much can I expect to make as an Instructional Designer?”

Truth be told, this is a fair question to ask as anyone who is about to start a career would be smart to know the general salary expectations.  Naturally, I didn’t know the answer to this off-hand, but a quick search on Salary.com led me to discover that an instructional designer can reasonably expect to earn somewhere between $33,000 to $102,000 per year, with an estimated average of $65,000.  Now, I know this is only one source, but for all intents and purposes I think it provides an accurate window of expectations.

I sent this information to the person who contacted me, and the next day received one a follow-up question: “What factors determine where you fall within the salary range?”

Again, a fair question to ask, but a difficult one to answer specifically.  The usual suspects apply though, such as education, employer, geographic location, experience, and position.  Now, some of these factors may be out of your control as an ID, but there are certain things you can do to position yourself for higher pay.

1. Specialize: Let’s face it, every year there is added competition in every industry as recent graduates come along and enter the field.  The way you can differentiate yourself is to pick a specialization and pursue work in that particular field.  Specialization can be industry-specific, platform-specific, or both.  For example, you could choose to specialize in Healthcare, or maybe SalesForce.com software.  When it comes down to it, specialists always make more money than generalists.  Carve out a niche in the market and own it.

2. Technology Focus:  Okay, I am going to admit my bias on this one given my background in the field, but I firmly believe that if you have the ability to effectively create elearning/training for in-demand software systems, then you are setting yourself up for higher pay.  Why? Because software systems are complex, and companies that hire for software instructional design have deep pockets. I remember being on a project where we were creating training for Oracle PeopleSoft (an ERP software).  We hired a third-party consultant who had 30 years (yes, 30 years) of instructional design experience for PeopleSoft.  The guy was a machine, and his work was flawless.  He knew the ins and outs of the program so well that he actually saved the company money because he was efficient.  He was so good that he was head-hunted while on our project and ended up leaving for an extremely well-known firm to work on (you guessed it), Oracle PeopleSoft.  I don’t know this man’s salary, but I am willing to bet the house that his deep specialization in an in-demand, high-profile software pushed him to the very top of the salary spectrum.

3. Manage a Team: This might not be for everyone, but one sure-fire way to earn more as an instructional designer is to become a manager, or lead, of a team.  This means that you will be doing less instructional design on a day-to-day basis, but you can still apply your knowledge to your reviews and guidance.  It’s a fact of life, managers will always be paid more than the “worker bees”.  Position yourself for more responsibility over time – even if it means leaving your employer for different opportunities.  If you can prove to be an effective manager of people, your salary will reflect  your worth to the organization.

There are certainly other ways to potentially increase your yearly salary as an instructional designer, but I believe these three ways are within your control today.  Over time you will reap the natural benefits that come with experience. For now, focus your efforts on producing quality work-products and specialization, while simultaneously immersing yourself into industry trends and best practices.

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About the Author:

Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by the world's leading organizations, such as the University of Michigan, Digital Marketer, WPEngine, and Infusionsoft. Justin has made a career as an elearning consultant where he has implemented large-scale training programs for Fortune 500 companies. Twitter | LinkedIn

18 Comments
  1. Thank you so much for this article. I am in a similar boat and have been asking for advice from others already in the field. The more information I can hunt out and the more advice I can get, the better off I will be. I am so eager to learn and there is so much to learn that it is so exciting. Thanks again and wish me luck. 🙂

    • Great to hear Kari, and thanks for the comment. If you are just getting into the field, it is a good idea to contact staffing agencies as there are often short-term contracts for Instructional Design in most major cities. Key items they are looking for are Adobe Captivate experience and Articulate experience, among others. Good luck!

  2. Sandra Shill

    Thanks for the article. One little “edit” though — the correct phrase is “for all intents and purposes,” not “for all intensive purposes” (which really doesn’t make any sense, if you think about it). This is a common mistake, but I figured you’d probably want to know so you can correct it.

  3. Rami

    Thanks , a useful article , here in the Middle East this career is still unknown and not respected very much because they think all do you need to do is some PowerPoint slides and that is it .
    good luck

  4. Three areas of need: xapi, mobile, and analytics.

    Storyline seems to be leapfrogging Captivate because it is perceived as more mobile-compatible. Any mobile experience will do (except reserving non-mobile course designs on mobile).

    xapi is the future standard. The folks who own SCORM.com and support SCORM more than any other group have noted SCORM won’t be developed further. Moodle is moving off of SCORM… Time to catch a wave is as it builds,not when it crests.

    The shortage of data pros is very well documented. Even on the light end, a solid understanding of analytics to demonstrate contribution to the organization and/or the ability to identify problem areas to suggest ways to better support employees makes you a highly valued resource to any organization.

    • HI David-
      Thanks for the comment, and your three areas are spot on. One thing that frustrates me about Articulate Storyline is the way they have stuck to version .90 of xapi when there has been two iterations since then. This is actually causing quite an issue for people who wish to use the program with xapi but realize that the reporting it generates is not worth it. Hopefully before the end of 2013 they get there.

  5. Magdalena Serwin

    Thanks for this useful post. Seems like I’m on the right track… need #3. Here in Ottawa it’s difficult to break into the market without being bilingual in both English/French.

  6. Just reading this post now – almost two years since original posting. Has much changed regarding the topics that you discussed. I am an educator (not ID) but in course creation, this field sounds fascinating. I want to seek training in the field so I can teach some amazing online courses….content is a small part of the online course experience.

    • Hi Luella-
      Thanks for commenting! I would very much say that these 3 tips are still relevant today. Instructional design is a growing industry as online courses and training are becoming more visible. You may find this article on average salaries for 2015 fascinating.

  7. Livi

    Hi Justin,

    I am a recent graduate with a Master’s in Instructional Design and Technology–my undergrad is in psychology. I am so interested in the ID field, but can’t figure out how to break in. I don’t have a ton of work experience, and none in the field at all. Do you have any tips on how to gain experience-specifically in Adobe Captivate, and Articulate?

    Thank you,
    Liv

  8. Patrick

    Hi Justin,

    Thanks for another great article. I’ve been reading a lot of your stuff lately, and it’s all short and succinct–something I greatly value.

    I am finishing my bachelor’s degree in Instructional Technology this December, but have been rapidly moving through a list of highly recommended ISD, eLearning, and training books as I prepare to my move to enter the industry.

    What specialties would you recommend for an ID fresh out of school who wants to work mostly over the internet (because there are no jobs within 75 miles–I checked)? I’m not picky about salary, I really just want to get into the field! Should I pick Storyline and really master it? Or perhaps Captivate? I have no experience out of class, although I did build an instructional website for one of my earlier classes (msuteam1.weebly.com). It’s rough but was my first class in instructional design.

    Thanks!

    • My personal viewpoint is that you shouldn’t specialize in a ‘tool’ for creation (as that requirement could change client-to-client). Instead, try to niche down. For example, you could be the “go-to” person for creating elearning for ERP software (say, SAP or perhaps WorkDay). Regarding travel vs. remote work I think that comes down to the client’s preference. My experience has been almost exclusively with traveling to the client site and having one or two remote days during the week.

  9. Christian Z

    Justin is correct in not getting to specialized in any one type of authoring software. I have switched from using Lectora at one job, moving to Captivate at another, and moving to Storyline. If you can get a security clearance, that equal more money. When searching for a government job, you will look for the 1750 series in the search toolbar. Generally my salary has ranged from 70K – 115K (DC area).

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