Instructional Design certificate vs. Masters

Sep 11, 2016

Hi heroes,

Hoping I can pick your brains. I'm looking to start some sort of formal study in the field of instructional design and am torn between pursuing a certificate program (shorter, quicker, potentially more focused) or a masters (possibly more esteemed, thorough).

I would be so appreciative of any insight you may be able to share in this regard as to which would be a better investment in our field.

Many thanks!

13 Replies
Kerry Avery

I 'll weigh in, since I have certificates in adult education from 2 universities and will be completing a Masters in Distance Education in April. The field of instructional design is huge, so it really depends on what your goals are. I have been doing ID for over 12 years, and have been a self employed consultant for the last 4 years (just to give you an idea of the type of work I do). 

Do you already have an undergraduate degree? If so, there are also graduate diplomas, just to add another option in to the mix. I don't feel the Masters program has been broader than the certificate programs. They both cover theories and design. The Masters has given me a lot more insight and a much better understanding of research.

When I started, the certificate was a good qualification and it gave me a solid base to figure out ID.  It still really is up to the person to work through how and when to apply the different theories. The problem I found was the majority of the job postings in this field began stating, degree required, masters preferred. If you're looking at positions with large corporations or government those qualifications are not negotiable, even if you have experience. If you already have an undergrad, this may not be an issue for you; I only had a certificate and 6 years of experience. 

The other considerations are,  are you staying in a field which you are a subject matter expert in, and is your focus instructional design or e-learning development? If you're a subject matter expert in your field, the formal education will be less important and a certificate will be an excellent addition to your existing qualifications. If you want to be a professional ID and work in areas that you have no experience with, the education will be more important because you need to establish yourself as a subject matter expert in education/training. If your focus is e-learning development, I think the certificate will give help you with the ID component and the rest of your focus is on programming skills. Employers in this area are more interested in your portfolio than your educations.

Sorry it's so long. I hope that's helpful! I know it's a tough decision to make, a big investment of money and time, and there are no guarantees. Good luck!

Sam Zimmer

Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply Kerry!

While I do have an undergrad, I am not a SME and am looking to focus on e-learning. I definitely hear your point and agree that employers are more interested in a portfolio than a credential. I think I am leaning towards a certificate (but will investigate graduate diplomas). You've given me quite a bit to think about : )

Thanks again for taking the time to weigh in, and best of luck in the final stretch of your masters! 

Moharram Aghazadeh

Actually it depends on future career goal(s). A degree opens the road for going a head with academic mind. A certificate just leads you for landing on a position or qualifying the existing job.

As I see universities are not practical in the field of instructional design. So I can recommend pursuing a degree along with keeping an eye on earning a certificate.

You can reach me at for further information or come to my LinkedIn,

Anyhow, I wish you all the best.

Mo Aghazadeh


Carolina Fautsch

If formal study is what you want, a certificate that can later be leveraged into a Master's might be ideal for you. I have a certificate from UW-Stout and they also offer an online Master's, which you can jump into after the certificate. That might be ideal if you need to work while you study. I liked the program and did learn from it. The only thing to keep in mind is that certificate programs don't offer financial aid, so you pay out of pocket. (UW Stout's is not unreasonable, and I think OSU has an even cheaper online offering, though I don't know if the courses double as credit for a Master's.)

Honestly, though, a Master's will not prepare you for a lot of corporate work, and many of the ISDs I admire don't have one. But it does give you a theoretical background and it does open doors. At least it'll get your resume to pass some keyword scanners.  Certain fields, like higher education and government work, tend to require a degree, while others, like freelance corporate contracts, don't typically care much at all.

I chose to get a certificate because I knew I wanted a Master's in an unrelated field (Creative Writing). I'm not done with my degree yet, but the combination has already proved attractive to some clients who know me for my scenario writing abilities. I didn't want to have to get two degrees -- that's just so much time in school! -- so I'm glad this is working out so far.

It's a very personal decision, with pluses and minuses to either choice. Best of luck!


Sam Zimmer

Hi Maggie, nice to meet you! The program I'm most excited about is the Masters of Educational Technology through UBC. It has two certificate options that you can build on and transition to a masters. One huge advantage is that it is 100% online (so you can balance with a full time job) and complete it remotely. Take a look - maybe it will be up your alley! 

Oh and full disclosure, I was looking for a program from a Canadian institution so that impacted my search. You may also want to check out this list which was a great jumping off point. 


Keith Lillico


One option to consider is the masters program at Western Governors. The way the school is designed I don't think there is an easier way to work full time and get a degree. I do not have my M.Ed from them but I did get my MBA through them and loved it. Since I was highly motivated and was able to cut a lot of time off of getting my degree. They are also insanely affordable.  I plan on going back to get my M.Ed here shortly when I qualify for my work to pay for it. 

Magda Diaz

Make sure that you love what you want to learn and don't expect it to land you a job. Both my BA and MFA are not in Instructional Design or Development but they did teach me great design and problem solving skills that provided the perfect framework to continue learning and eventually apply to L & D.

I have worked both as a contractor and within Corporate or startup environments. In every case nobody ever asked me what I learned in school. It's all about my process, experience, portfolio and professionalism and my genuine love for what I do for a living.

Life long learning is the key but understand that you don't need to get yourself into a lot of debt to become a great professional in this field.

Good luck!

malcolm swinton

Edinburgh University in Scotland does an e-learning masters on-line.  

In terms of instructional designers, i would look at a marketing course, a front end web designers course and some teaching element sod how people learn.  These days every role requires so many attributes it can get really overwhelming.

I did marketing as part of my job for about 8 years and I learned a lot.  I found the dummies guide to marketing, psychology and teaching a good place to start.  I did human resources post grad and the training element was dated and poor so make sure you read up on the content.

Good luck! malcolm 

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