One of the questions I’m asked regularly is how one might prepare for a career in genetic genealogy. I can’t really answer that question very effectively, because there is no official path or course of study for this career. My own entry point was through a strong science and computer background, although my degrees are “legacy” by today’s standards, combined with a 35+ year obsession with genealogy and what I thought was an early retirement from my first career. Little did I know I’d be busier than ever.
In November 2016, I met Jessica Taylor and Paul Woodbury at the International Conference on Genetic Genealogy sponsored by Family Tree DNA and held annually in Houston, Texas. I had corresponded with Paul several times previously, before he went to work with Legacy Tree Genealogists, owned and founded by Jessica Taylor.
It was wonderful to meet Paul in person, one of the benefits of attending conferences. As you can see, we were having a great time on a lab tour at Gene by Gene.
Paul is the first (and only, so far) person that I’ve met that actually proactively decided to become a genetic genealogist. Everyone else gravitated to this field from elsewhere or fell into it one way or another. That really isn’t surprising given that genetic genealogy is only 17 years old, and that there wasn’t enough interest, testing or tests to constitute a career or even a specialty in genetic genealogy for the first several years.
I began writing the Personalized DNA Reports, available through Family Tree DNA and my website, in about 2004. At that time, autosomal DNA testing for genealogy didn’t yet exist and wouldn’t for several more years.
The advent of autosomal testing with cousin matching and ethnicity estimates has really brought genetics into the forefront of genealogy research. So the question of how one becomes a genetic genealogist, whether by plan from the beginning or by reinventing or adding to an existing career is a question we’re going to hear more and more.
I’ve asked Paul to write a guest column about the career path to becoming a genetic genealogist. I would like to thank Paul for this article and Legacy Tree Genealogists for the coupon for readers who might benefit from genealogy research (at the end of the article), and with that, I’ll turn it over to Paul.
Pursuing a Career in Genetic Genealogy by Paul Woodbury
Person I just met: “What do you do for work?”
Me: I’m a genetic genealogist.”
Person I just met: “Wow! I didn’t even know that job existed. How did you get into that?”
I probably have this same conversation or variations on the theme every other day. Since I was sixteen, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in genetic genealogy. My fascination with genealogy began when I was still very young. I can trace my interest to the family history binder I got from my grandparents on my eighth birthday. But, in 2006 during the Winter Olympics, a television special entitled “African American Lives” aired on PBS and it introduced me to my chosen career. In the show, they shared stories regarding the ancestry and origins of African American celebrities. They used traditional genealogical research but brought in DNA as part of their exploration. I decided then and there that I wanted to be a genetic genealogist. Along those lines, I attended Brigham Young University where I majored in genetics and minored in Family History. If I could do it over again, I might have switched my focus.
Throughout my undergraduate education, my professors had no idea what to do with me. Most of my peers were preparing for medical school or for work in research labs. Many of our professors had emphases in plant genetics. Since I had a very different aim, I struggled in my classes which had limited application to the field of genetics. When I approached my professors requesting advice or references, they were at a loss of where to direct me. While my genetics education provides a strong framework for understanding genetic inheritance and biological concepts, most of the skills I use as a genetic genealogist I learned through informal and on-the-job education.
Most of my education relating specifically to genetic genealogy came through attending conferences, networking with leaders in the field, reading blogs, online forums, and books dedicated to the topic and working under the guidance of skilled mentors. Because genetic genealogy is a fairly new field, I have also found that much of my genetic genealogy education comes through hands-on experience dealing with real situations. I learn most as I apply my knowledge towards the resolution of a research goal, and as I search for novel approaches to solve more advanced research problems.
When I first began attending conferences, I would ask those offering classes on genetic genealogy topics what they recommended for those preparing to enter the field. Every one of them told me that I should pursue a masters or Ph.D. in Genetics or Bioinformatics. I ignored their advice. While there is certainly a demand for expertise in those areas, I saw a need (and still see a need) for genealogists who are well-versed in applying genetics to traditional research rather than vice-versa. As discussed previously, most of what I use daily as a genetic genealogist, I learned outside of my genetics classes. To be a good genetic genealogist, you do not necessarily need to be a geneticist. Nevertheless, to be a good genetic genealogist, you do need to be a good genealogist.
Genetic testing is increasingly becoming part of reasonably exhaustive research as mandated by the genealogical proof standard. As DNA takes its place as one record among many, good genetic genealogists will need to be well-versed in at least the basics of traditional research, and traditional researchers will need to be well-versed in at least the basics of DNA evidence. Certainly there are specialists in different localities, languages or types of record, but they exist in relation to larger genealogical practice, evidence analysis and problem solving. Specialty in genetic genealogy is not a stand-alone emphasis. For any individual planning to pursue genetic genealogy research as a career, I recommend specializing in other traditional research fields as well. Personally, I specialize in French, Spanish and Scandinavian research in addition to my emphasis on genetic genealogy.
Even now, genetic genealogy education is mostly offered through conferences and institutes. Some conferences and institutes which I have attended and which regularly offer in-depth courses on genetic genealogy include the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree and DNA Day (SCGS), RootsTech, Institute for Genetic Genealogy (I4GG), and the Family Tree DNA Group Administrators Conference. A host of other conferences, institutes, workshops and seminars also provide instruction on genetic genealogy including national conferences like NGS and FGS and local society conferences. Online offerings are also on the rise and one fairly new resource is a 15-week online course dedicated to Genetic Genealogy at Excelsior College. (https://genealogy.excelsior.edu/genealogy/genetic-genealogy/)
Conferences are not only valuable for the classes and sessions they provide dedicated to genetic genealogy topics, but also for the opportunities they provide to network with other genealogists and genetic genealogy researchers. By attending RootsTech and other conferences while still a college student, I was able to collaborate and network with leaders in the field of genetic genealogy. Through my correspondence and collaboration with these individuals, I have benefited from wonderful relationships and important mentorship opportunities.
Even if you do not have the opportunity to participate in genealogy conferences and network with other professionals, you can still benefit from online communities, forums and blogs which provide in depth education regarding genetic genealogy:
- International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG)
- DNA Explained (blog) (https://dna-explained.com/)
- The Genetic Genealogist (blog) (http://thegeneticgenealogist.com/)
- Your Genetic Genealogist (blog) (http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com/)
- DNA Detectives (Facebook Group) (https://www.facebook.com/groups/DNADetectives/?fref=nf)
- The Legal Genealogist (blog regularly highlighting DNA) (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/)
- Legacy Tree Genealogists (blog regularly highlighting DNA) (https://www.legacytree.com/blog)
Books I recommend for genetic genealogy education:
- Genetic Genealogy in Practice by Blaine T. Bettinger and Debbie Parker Wayne
- NextGen Genealogy: The DNA Connection by David Dowell
- The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine T. Bettinger
Perhaps the most important challenge for preparing to enter the field of genetic genealogy is gaining experience in the field. As you work with prospective employers and clients it is important to have a portfolio of professional level reports and materials to help increase confidence in your ability. Consider starting work on your own family history. As you compile evidence and proof arguments, be sure to abide by standards of genealogical proof and the genetic genealogy standards. When collaborating with other genetic cousins and relatives, consider pursuing some pro-bono work in helping them with their research problems. When you share your portfolio with clients or prospective employers, don’t be shy. This is your opportunity to show off the full range of your ability, so don’t feel bad about sharing a 30 page report. Since there are currently no organizations offering credentials in genetic genealogy specialty, clients and employers have to depend upon your previous experience in the area. For any research you do, make sure to write it up in a clearly written report.
Even if you are a very good researcher, you cannot be a successful professional genealogist without strong writing and communication skills as well. Even the most brilliant research breakthroughs go unnoticed when they are not effectively communicated. In addition to improving your research skills, work on developing your time management, report writing, and communication skills.
As genealogy becomes a more popular field of inquiry and as more people participate in genetic genealogy testing, demand for DNA interpretation and genetic genealogy research will only increase. Demand for genetic genealogy research services is already high and is rapidly increasing. In my view, demand for genealogy research is driven by disconnect and displacement from cultural roots. Current trends in migration and family structures lend themselves to more frequent disconnect and displacement between families and communities. In many cases, the cultural and familial ties being broken today through refugee crises, adoption, and misattributed parentage have sparse record trails on which we can rely for future genealogy research. As a result, genetic genealogy will play an increasingly important role in genealogy research in the future. It is an exciting time to be involved in the field of genetic genealogy and a great many opportunities are on the horizon. If you plan to join the field, make sure to arm yourself with the education and experience you will need to succeed.
Paul Woodbury is a Senior Genealogist with Legacy Tree Genealogists, a genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in genetic genealogy and DNA analysis. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit the Legacy Tree website at https://www.legacytree.com
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