To PhD or Not to PhD: Is That Your Question?

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

With the field of instructional design evolving and new leadership pathways emerging, what are the considerations for advanced study for the instructional designer and those in related roles? In this Career Forum Roundtable, panelists discuss their decisions to pursue a PhD (or not),  and the benefits and drawbacks of their decisions.



Kate Miffitt is the Assistant Director of Innovation at California State University's Office of the Chancellor. Previously, she served in different roles in instructional design and digital learning at The Pennsylvania State University. She holds a B.A. in English from Stonehill College and an M.A. in education in instructional technologies from San Francisco State University.
Angela Gunder is the Chief Academic Officer and VP of Learning for the Online Learning Consortium. In this role, she is responsible for gathering, curating, and leveraging the intellectual capital created by and disseminated through OLC. Prior to her position at the OLC, Angela served as the Director of Instructional Design & Curriculum Development for the Office of Digital Learning, managing and mentoring the team that builds the fully-online programs for The University of Arizona. Her over fifteen-year career as a designer for higher education informs her instructional design practice, where she leverages her expertise in web design, usability, visual communication, programming, and standards-based online learning. She is an Associate Editor for the Teacher Education Board of MERLOT, and the recipient of the 2018 MERLOT Distinguished Service Award, the organization’s highest honor. She is also the recipient of two Online Learning Consortium Effective Practice Awards for the creation of a framework for personal learning networks, and for the creation of exploratory installations of education technology, respectively. In 2019, Dr. Gunder was named an OLC Fellow for her dedication to service, innovation, and scholarship in support of student success in online learning. Her research interests include open educational practices, digital literacies, narrative in online course design, and emerging technology for second language acquisition. She holds a B.S. in Computer Science and Fine Art from Fordham University, a M.Ed. in Education Technology from Arizona State University. Angela completed her Ph.D. in Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies at The University of Arizona, where in 2020 she was named an Erasmus Scholar by the College of Education for her commitment to the college, the university and to the community. Pronouns: she/her/hers
Dr. Jessica Knott is Assistant Vice President of Community Strategy, Experience, and Management. In this role, Jessica manages outreach activities and strategies, including environmental scanning, experience design, communications and planning, based on a deep understanding of our community and member interests. Prior to the OLC, Jessica led a team that supported faculty and academic staff in creating quality, caring and exemplary digital experiences at Michigan State University.
Kate Sonka is the Executive Director of Teach Access and the Assistant Director of Inclusion & Academic Technology at the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University. She holds a Master’s degree in Bilingual/Bicultural Education and more than 10 years of experience in higher ed. She improves teaching and learning with technology through course design and support, experiential learning, and training and mentorship for faculty members and students. In exploring how accessibility exists in professional and academic spaces, she helped establish the Teach Access Study Away Silicon Valley program, implement the Teach Access Faculty Curriculum Development Grant program, and founded the Accessible Learning Conference at Michigan State University.

Extended Abstract

As the strategic goals of institutions change and technologies become easier to use, the role of the instructional designer is evolving. What once was a more technical, hands-on role in building online courses is now a more collaborative role that supports not only designing learning experiences, but also learning spaces, academic program redesigns, and other strategic initiatives. Senior leadership roles with titles like “chief academic technology officer” and “dean of digital learning” are becoming more common, as is the argument that the instructional designer should be classified as an academic role. The PhD seems like a valuable credential in this trajectory.

And yet, instructional design is a practitioner field, with expertise not only in pedagogy, but also project management and quality assurance processes that don’t meet the standards of academic rigor. And there is a rich ecosystem of professional development opportunities that enhance practitioner expertise, in areas such as design thinking, experience design, universal design, and change management, in non-traditional fast-paced modes. The kind of lateral thinking and broad expertise that can be an asset to the practitioner can seem at odds with the narrow focus and time commitment required to earn a terminal degree.

With the profession evolving and new leadership pathways emerging, what are the considerations for advanced study and professional development for the instructional designer, and related roles in faculty development, instructional media, and education technology? 

In this Career Forum Roundtable, panelists in different roles in learning design, faculty development, and innovation will talk about their decisions to pursue a PhD (or not), and what they see as the benefits and drawbacks of their decisions. While this session may be of general interest, the target audience is instructional design professionals and those in related roles. 

Discussion will focus on questions such as: 

  • What learning experiences have been most valuable to you? How have they informed your practice? 
  • What do you see as your career pathways? What are the experiences, credentials, and skills that best prepare you for those roles? 
  • Is the PhD essential preparation for senior roles in academic reporting lines, or is it a credential in service largely to getting faculty and administrative buy-in? 
  • What do you look for in hiring? How much does formal training weigh in your decision-making? 
  • With more credentialing opportunities available, do you see the value of the traditional degree changing for the experienced professional?