“She works on learning and technology
in a way that is creative, concrete and quirky”

Instructional designers aren’t ready for their interviews

Often, current and former graduate students ask for advice about how to be successful when they interview for instructional design positions. Yes, I have my opinions, but I wanted you to hear from someone I admire. Let’s welcome guest blogger, Alice Cutter, who has been interviewing MANY IDs for positions in her firm. And these are not the first ID positions she has attempted to fill. Not by a long shot.

Here’s what Alice wrote:

We just finished a job search to find four Instructional Designers.  One of our requirements is that the ID being hired must have experience in all phases of instructional design.  There were hundreds of resumes and it took four months to fill the four positions.

My team was surprised to find that many candidates were unable to answer the simplest of questions. Is it too much to expect that an ID would be able to answer questions regarding the specifics of the learning deliverables they’ve produced or the delivery strategy that was used?  What about the reasons for those learning solution(s)? How about details about the process used to design/develop? What of the value added as a result of the effort?

There are countless reasons why some interview well and others don’t. I certainly don’t have the answers to all of that. But when reflecting on our recent hiring journey, one key reason for IDs “messing up” the interview seemed to surface. They couldn’t talk about specific examples of their experiences in all phases of instructional design (one of our requirements).  In many cases they couldn’t give specific experience examples of even one phase.

Another thought is that perhaps candidates don’t take enough time to carefully read the specifics of a job posting. This can lead to applying for something that they’re not qualified for or to not preparing to speak their match to those requirements. They may not be taking the time to prepare themselves with specific examples that demonstrate their qualifications against the requirements of this job description.


Thank you to Alice for refocusing our attention on the interview. Alice Cutter

In her current position Alice is responsible for creating and overseeing the implementation of a strategic approach to design and development of learning throughout the company.  This includes building the capability and providing leadership to the learning design function and team.


  1. I propose one issue that adds to this problem… There is no gate keeper for the title of “instructional designer”. Anyone can add this title to an email signature or resume and it isn’t until a deeper conversation that you know if the person meets your definition of instructional designer. Note that I said “your definition”; it means too many different things. A portfolio would go along way to understanding the skills of a particular applicant, but with hundreds of applicants, who has the time to evaluate portfolios in the first cut? Do we need a gatekeeper for the title “instructional designer”? To be current, who will manage the ID badge?

    • Oh so true, Chuck. But I am not optimistic about changing this one. What are we going to do?

      Do you want the state or the feds to regulate us the way they do elementary school teachers? Seems to work for food handlers, but not certain it’s the best way to go for knowledge workers, which we surely are.

      Another option for badge management is the one we have seen taken by the professional associations. See ISPI’s CPT or ASTD’s CPLP. What do you think? Have they advanced the ball down the field?

      The most conventional gatekeeper is the university. Academic programs make a sincere effort here, but it’s hard. Organizations like to swiftly promote internal subject matter experts into learning and performance. Their choice then: do we send these SMEs to grad schools which is costly and takes time OR do we pay for a pre-conference workshop? Most choose wishful thinking and grab the latter.

      • Oh, I will opt out of the state or federal regulation choices for sure. Professional associations seem like a decent choice, but I have not seen an impact of the existence of CPT, in the higher ed context anyway. I have heard that AECT was/is considering a type of certification for instructional designers.

        Perhaps we should toss out the label “instructional designer” and move to a new label with some meaningful training to accompany it. Learning Engineer??

    • Alice Cutter says:

      I’m a firm believer in looking at people’s work and more importantly them being able to discuss their work when they show it. It’s not all about the interview itself but it’s important that the person is able to communicate and collaborate with others.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I’ll be graduating with an instructional design degree in a few weeks, and have been wondering what I’m doing wrong in my job interviews. This post was really helpful for me.

  3. As an adjunct teacher teaching in the T&D certificate degree program, I would like to add my two cents to the conversation. The university I teach for focuses on and caters to the adult learners returning to school; therefore the typical student has many practical years experience. I have had many, many, many students come through class over the years that have been “developing and delivering” training for 10-20 years. Yet, ADDIE, The 9 Events, Kirkpatrick Model? All brand new concepts to them!
    Historically, it is not unusual for organizations to throw the SME into a training position, and after a few years this person is considered an expert trainer. I think the shift to requiring specific skills and knowledge in the training field are fairly new….within the last 5-10 years.

  4. Stephen Raney says:

    How sad we continue to march folks in for interviews which resemble high stakes testing or a firing squad. Some amazing designers are not and never will be great sales people. In my experience, the best interviews have been demonstration based, whereby the candidate shows off some cute sample project assigned by the interview team, and one from their own experience. Keep all the boring background stuff out of the picture for the HR folks to verify, and save face time for the good stuff. And pay for parking, really.

  5. As someone who “gives great interview”, and has interviewed more than his share of shy, retiring instructional folks — I’ve found little connection to their performance under the microscope of a job interview and their ability to make magic in courseware design.

    My ability to be charming, witty, and ready with great answers to your interview questions masks the fact that I’m easily distracted by shiny objects. My pat answers about ADDIE and her little friends just show that I’ve interviewed a lot because I get booted out of jobs. My thick book of examples just proves that I’m willing to take credit for any job that I had even a TINY part in and call it my own.

    Beware those of us who shine in interviews. We’re really, really annoying if you have to work with us every single day.

    • Alice Cutter says:

      The smooth talkers are definitely out there. And of course they know all the right buzz words to throw around. What would the world be like without them? When it comes to the volume of examples provided, that doesn’t matter. It’s whether or not the person can talk about the examples; what surrounded the choice for that solution, what were the circumstances around implementation, how did it make a difference to the audience it was created for? It’s those discussions in the “interview” that are most revealing as to the real talents/skills both technical and interpersonal.

  6. What’s the job? Is it courseware design or is it working with line business partners, colleagues and vendors? How much of all aspects of our work? I think that would alter how much stake I would put in the interview.

    While I agree that giving good interview guarantees nothing and I wouldn’t depend on it alone, you know that a bad one is going to shut the door.

    Sure, there are phonies out there who can sling jargon and dazzle the not-so-savvy, but I wouldn’t allow their silver tongues to disqualify them. You aren’t really suggesting that smooth interviewees should be avoided?

    Your point about bulging portfolios is a good one. Skepticism makes sense to me. Ask about it. Ask why? How did they select that approach vs another? Ask the candidate to look at one of your projects. What do they think would work? About what do they have hesitations?

    A buyer beware approach is always a good idea. That goes for those who are hiring and those who hope to be hired.

    • Nah, just (as you said) exercise the same skills that make YOU a good ID. Focus on having your subject implement the skills you’re interested in, and watch. Talking ain’t training, and telling ain’t designing.

      Give me a scenario and ask me how I’d proceed — a short needs analysis, an obvious “not actually a training issue”, moving an ILT course to online, etc. Then show me something you’ve built and ask for constructive feedback.

      Those are all tasks I’m going to be asking you to perform in my office every single day. If you can’t do that easily, comfortably and professionally — I don’t have any need for you. But I’ll only look at your portfolio once, and I’ll probably never EVER ask you what kind of tree you’d be.

  7. I agree with the comment about having an interviewee produce something as part of the interview. We did that at my last job and hired 2 wonderful IDs. You get to see creativity, ability to comprehend and follow requested tasks, and grace under pressure. I highly recommend adding this if possible to the interview process.

  8. Nicole Dalton says:

    In my own experience, interviewing for a job is never easy, especially when you really want it.

    I have been an Instructional Designer for over 12 years. I have a MS in Instructional Technology (2001). Like many of us…I use the ADDIE model for Instructional Design. I am a whiz at interviewing my SMEs and stakeholders to identify needs and collaborate with team members spectacularly. I have given presentations about the ID process and the job of an ID, supervised and mentored others, interviewed job candidates, etc. I seem cool and confident and an “expert” in my field. Not to toot my own horn, but I am. I know my stuff, I am in my element and am discussing what I love.

    HOWEVER…I must admit when the spotlight has been turned on me in a job interview…I have choked on the simplest items and run on too long due to nerves on others.

    Even a seasoned professional can be caught off guard when asked basic questions. This can be particularly disconcerting when you are being interviewed by someone in a position who you assume may not know Bloom, ADDIE or even really what you do as an ID, but is just part of the departmental chain. They are taking notes and will report back to their team your answers and their impressions of you.

    So…my advice to those who are interviewing:

    Be prepared for anything. Bone up on your basic ID buzz words and theories. Read the job position profile. Have examples of what you have done, when you did it and the results as they relate to the job for which you are interviewing. Have some that include dealing with difficult situations and people. I agree that having work samples to show is helpful, since it gives those who may not shine under a microscope an opportunity to move to a place of comfort-talking about process, methods and implementation.

    Good Luck!


  9. Kelly Smith says:

    Over the years I have found interviewers lack knowledge and experience in instructional design and project management. They seem to view instructional design as necessary process for managing a project or view basic knowledge of the ADDIE model as the paradigm of all required knowledge related to producing learning. They seem to be dedicated their current practice whether it evolved from research or is something that the enterprise has been doing for years.

  10. Another issue I have often encountered is in regards to proprietary instructional design developed at former jobs. For example, a very capable instructional designer has only worked for one company, and he/she signed an NDA prohibiting them from disclosing any instructional design content they developed (all of which would be necessary to include in their portfolio for future reference/job interviews). Let’s also say that this candidate only possesses the software to develop above satisfactory instructional design content on their work computer, so they cannot create anything new and innovative prior to the interview. How do you work around such a scenario?

  11. Ed Murray says:

    My last contract was with an Irish university. I was a perfect match, satisfying not only the essential criteria but the desirable criteria, too. Furthermore, I was an SME in the subject area, something not even requested. The job was a nightmare. The academics refused to engage with me, nobody gave me content to work with, and when I suggested I provide the content and they vet it, nothing happened.

    After a year of trying to discuss this with the project leader, I realized they had really wanted a web developer. Confronting him, he admitted this was so but HR had forced the ID job spec on them.

    What had got me the job was that he fancied a cute little JavaScript snippet I had included in my demo of leaves drifting down the screen (you know the one, originally snowflakes).

    So, in my case, I aced the interview. But they were interviewing for a job they didn’t have.

    PS: I’m in complete agreement with Kevin Smith’s observations. I’m rarely interviewed by anyone other than some 30-something woman who is just a go-between with whom establishing rapport is wasted effort.


  1. […] Often, current and former graduate students ask for advice about how to be successful when they interview for instructional design positions. Yes, I have my opinions, but I wanted you to hear from someone I admire. Let’s welcome guest blogger, Alice Cutter, who has been interviewing MANY IDs for positions in her firm. And these are not the first ID positions she has attempted to fill. Not by a long shot. Here’s what Alice wrote: Instructional designers aren’t ready for their interviews […]