I get asked quite often about what is required to become a professional genetic genealogist.
That’s actually two separate questions.
- What is required to become a professional genealogist?
- Then, what is required to specialize as a genetic genealogist?
What It’s Not
Before we have this discussion, I need to make sure that you understand that I’m NOT talking about forensics, meaning IGG, or investigative genetic genealogy in this article.
- This is NOT forensics (IGG)
- This is also not a specialty in finding missing parents for adoptees and others searching for unknown parents.
Both IGG and adoption searches utilize the same methodology, a subset of genetic genealogy. I wrote about that in Identifying Unknown Parents and Individuals Using DNA Matching.
The difference between genetic genealogy more broadly and IGG is:
- What you’re searching for
- The perspective
- The methods utilized.
Essentially, the functional difference is that genealogists know who they are and have some information about their ancestors. For example, they know who their parents are and probably at least their grandparents. Genealogists are using both DNA testing and traditional genealogical paper trail research methods to focus and make discoveries going backwards in time.
Both IGG and unknown parent research uses DNA and (sometimes some) paper trail genealogy to find ways to connect the closest matches to the DNA tester (or DNA sample) together to each other to identify either living or recently living people. For example, two people who are are first cousins to the tester should both have the same grandparents if they are related to the tester through the same parent.
If two people who are related to the tester as first cousins do not share the same grandparent(s), then they are related to the tester through different parents of the tester.
The commonality is that DNA testing and some types of records are used for:
- IGG where you’re searching for the identity of the tester or DNA sample
- Unknown parent(s) searches where you are searching for the identity of the parent(s)
- Genetic genealogy
However, the search methodology is different for IGG and unknown parents than for genealogy.
With IGG and unknown parent searches, you’re looking for your closest matches, then attempting to connect them together to identify either currently living or recently living people.
This article focuses specifically on genealogy and genetic genealogy, meaning looking backwards in time to identify ancestors.
I wrote about the techniques used for both IGG and parental searching in the article, Identifying Unknown Parents and Individuals Using DNA Matching.
What Do Genealogists Do?
Genealogy is the study of family history and the descent of a person or a family. Genealogists use a variety of sources and methods to discover and show the ancestry of their subjects and in doing so, create the family trees that are familiar to all of us.
Genealogists use different sources and methods to find and show the descent and kinship of their subjects.
Traditional sources include but are not limited to the following record types:
- Vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates)
- Land and tax records
- Wills and probate
- Church records
- Published and online books
- Oral histories
- Genealogy databases
- And more
Of course, today the four types of DNA can be added to that list.
A professional genealogist needs to know how and where to find these types of records in the target area, any unique cultural or regional factors affecting those records, and how to interpret them both individually and together.
For example, in a deed record in colonial Virginia, why would, or wouldn’t a female release her dower right? What is dower right, and why is it important? How might that record, or lack thereof, affect future probate for that woman/couple? In what type of historical or court record book might one look for these types of records?
Genealogists also need to know how to weigh different types of information in terms of potential accuracy and how to interpret primary and secondary sources.
Primary sources are those that were created at or near the time of an event by someone who was present at the event or who had first-hand knowledge of it. Examples of primary sources include birth certificates, marriage licenses, and census records, although census records are far more likely to be inaccurate or incomplete than a birth certificate or marriage record. Genealogists need to understand why, and where to look for corroboration. Primary sources are considered to be most accurate.
Secondary sources are those that were created later by someone who did not have first-hand knowledge of the event. Examples of secondary sources include family histories and genealogies, published biographies, and sometimes, newspaper articles.
The genealogists “go to” source for understanding and interpreting evidence is Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills, available here.
Of course, DNA understanding and analysis needs to be added to this list and has become an important resource in genealogy. Additionally, genetic genealogy has become a specialty within the broader field of genealogy, as has IGG.
Put another way, a genealogist should have expertise and a specialty in some area. Maybe Italian records, or Native American genealogy, or New England records, in addition to the basic skills. At one time, a genealogist didn’t necessarily HAVE TO have expertise in genetic genealogy as well, but that has changed in the past few years. A professional genealogist should MINIMALLY understand the basics of genetic genealogy and when/how it can be useful. They may or may not have ready access to a genetic genealogist within the company where they work.
Being an independent genealogist, unless you specialize only in a specific area, like Dutch genealogy, is much more challenging because you’ll need to be proficient in BOTH Dutch genealogy AND genetic genealogy. It’s tough keeping up with one specialty, let alone two, although in this case, Yvette does an amazing job. However, her primary specialty is Dutch genealogy, and genetic genealogy is the booster rocket when appropriate. Genetic genealogy is not always needed for traditional genealogy, which is why genetic genealogy is a specialty skill.
In addition to all that, you also need to be proficient and comfortable with technology and a good communicator. Walking on water is also helpful:)
So, what does the job description for a genealogist look like?
I reached out to Legacy Tree Genealogists because they are one of the largest, if not the largest genealogy research company, and they partner with 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage. Legacy Tree has specialists in many regions and languages, in addition to six genetic genealogists on staff.
Fortunately, they have a job listing posted right now, here, with an excellent description of what is expected.
If you’re interested or wish to sign up for notifications, click here.
Understanding that this job description won’t be posted forever, I reached out to the owner, Jessica Dalley Taylor, and asked if she would send me a sample description to include in this article.
Here you go, courtesy of Jessica:
It’s not easy to make each client’s experience the very best it can possibly be, and it means we can only hire an exceptional genealogist for this position. You will be a great fit if:
- You are fluent in English and can explain your genealogy discoveries in a way that clients connect with and understand
- You have taken at least one genetic genealogy test or administered the test of a relative
- You have introductory genetic genealogy abilities
- You have at least intermediate traditional genealogical research experience in any geographic locality
- You are familiar with the repositories of the areas for which you claim expertise and have worked with them to obtain documents
- You are passionate about genealogy and are a creative problem solver
- You are great at working independently and hitting deadlines (please don’t overlook this line about deadlines)
- You are comfortable with Microsoft Office suite
- You’re familiar with genealogical technology such as pedigree software
- You have a quiet place to work without distractions, a computer, and great internet
- You have a strong desire to work as a professional genetic genealogist
Even better if:
- You have a basic understanding of genetic inheritance and its application to genealogy
- You have beginning experience with interpretation and use of genetic genealogy test results
- You have intermediate-level genetic genealogy abilities
What you’ll be doing at Legacy Tree:
- You’ll be learning how to use genetic testing in identifying family
- You’ll be learning how to create high-quality research reports
- You’ll be reading and formatting reports by professional researchers
- You’ll be assisting with researching and writing genealogy reports
- You’ll be performing genetic genealogy analysis under the direction of professional mentors
- You’ll be developing advanced-level genetic genealogy skills and abilities
- With your input, you’ll do other things as opportunities and needs arise
Please note that Legacy Tree offers both traditional genealogy services, combined with genetic genealogy, along with adoption and unknown parent searches.
As a measure of fundamental basic genetic genealogy skills, you should be able to create and teach a class like First Steps When Your DNA Results Are Ready – Sticking Your Toe in the Genealogy Water.
You should also be able to read and fully comprehend the articles on this blog, as well as explain the content to others. A very wise person once told me that if you can’t explain or teach a topic, you don’t understand it.
As luck would have it, Ancestry also posted a job opening for a genealogist as I was finishing this article. Here’s part of the job requirements.
Contractor or Employee
Please note that many companies have shifted their primary hiring strategy to utilizing contractors for not more than half time, especially now that working remotely has become the norm.
This may or may not be good news for you.
It allows the company to avoid paying benefits like insurance, vacation, leave, and retirement programs which reduces their costs. You may not need these benefits, and it may represent an opportunity for you. For others who need those benefits, it’s a deal-breaker.
Contracting may provide the ability to work part-time, but contracting probably means you need to have business management skills not required when you work for someone else. Let’s just say that I make quarterly estimated tax payments and my annual CPA bill is in the $2,000 range.
Pay, either as an employee or contractor for a company, is a sticky wicket in this field.
First, there’s a consumer mindset, although not universal, that genealogy “should be” free. In part, this is due to search angels and a history of well-intentioned people making things free. I’m one of them – guilty as charged – this blog is free. My hourly work, however, when I accepted clients (which I DO NOT now,) was not free.
However, that “should be free” mindset makes it difficult to shift to a “pay to play” mentality when people can go on social media and get what they want for free.
Professional services are not and should not be free.
Professionals should be able to earn a respectable living. The full-time Ancestry job, posted above, with those credentials, nets out to $21.63 per hour for a 40-hour week, with a graduate degree preferred. For comparison, google other jobs and professions.
If you doubt for one second whether professional services should or should not be free, especially ones that require a bachelor’s degree or master’s, just think about what your CPA would do if you asked them to do your taxes because they have the ability, for free. Same for a doctor, lawyer, or any other professional.
People are often shocked at the rates paid to employees versus the rates charged to prospective customers. This discussion has recently gotten spicy on social media, so I’m not going to comment other than to say that when I did take private clients, which I DO NOT ANYMORE, I found it much more beneficial to operate independently than to work for a company.
However, I also had a readily recognizable specialty and an avenue to reach potential clients.
I also already had a business structure set up, and a CPA, and perhaps more important than either of those – I had medical insurance already in place.
The need for benefits is what drives many people to work for companies, which I fully understand. It’s also a big factor in why there are more female genealogists than male genealogists. Married women in the US are eligible to be covered by their spouse’s insurance, assuming the spouse has insurance through their employer.
My very strong recommendation to you is to weigh all of the factors and NEVER to find yourself without medical insurance or coverage.
If you’re going to be “self-employed,” set up a company. If you’re going to set up a company, do it properly, understand the tax ramifications of the various types of corporations and engage a competent CPA to shepherd you through the process from day 1 through taxes. They are worth every penny.
Look at various jobs in the market, review at the associated pay, get a quote for genealogy services of the type you would be providing from the various companies – and decide if this profession is really for you.
I don’t mean to be a wet blanket, just a realist.
Training and Certification
Now for the good news and the bad news.
- There is professional training for genealogy
- There are certifications for genealogy
- There is no “one place” for either
- There is no certification for genetic genealogy
- There’s a LOT of misunderstanding and misinformation about genetic genealogy
- Genetic genealogy changes often
You need to view your education for genealogy/genetic genealogy in the same way you’d view obtaining a college degree – plus continuing education to maintain your education and skills at a current and functional level.
And yes, all of that costs money. If you decide to work for a company, be sure to ask if continuing ed is on their dime and time, or yours.
The Board for Certification of Genealogists, BCG, allows graduates to append CG, for Certified Genealogist after their name. BCG is focused on certification of skills and is not a training platform, although they do provide some webinars, etc. It’s not a college curriculum though. Certification is the “end game” for many. Candidates must submit a portfolio for evaluation, complete in a specific timeframe, and must reapply every five years to maintain their certification.
Not all genealogists are certified by BCG, and BCG only lists references of BCG members.
In the field of Genetic Genealogy, that can be problematic because many competent and well-known people are not BCG certified. BCG does not have a genetic genealogy certification.
Lack of BCG certification does not mean that someone is not qualified, and BCG certification certainly does NOT mean or imply that the individual is competent in genetic genealogy, which has more and more become a part of almost every genealogical puzzle. If not for initial discovery, for confirmation.
There are many avenues for genealogical training, including, but not limited to:
- Brigham Young University Family History Degree
- NGS Home Study Course
- Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG)
- Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP)
- Boston University Certificate program
- Genealogical Institute on Federal Records (Gen-Fed)
- Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR)
- University of Strathclyde
- University of Dundee
- Major Conferences, including RootsTech and NGS, among others
- Specialty conferences such as the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy (IAJGS)
- Online conferences and conference proceedings such as Rootstech who maintains a free library of their virtual and recorded conference sessions.
- Legacy Family Tree Webinars
- Videos produced by major genealogy companies such as MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry, often available through their website, Youtube or both
- Blogs and learning/help centers of the major genealogy companies
Genetic Genealogy Training
Genetic genealogy training is more challenging because there is no specific program, curriculum, or certification.
Many genetic genealogists obtained their experience as a part of genealogy over 15 or 20 years and have focused on the genetic aspect of genealogy. Several of us had a scientific background that meshed well with this field and is part of why we discovered that our passion is here.
Before I provide this resource list, I need to emphatically state that probably 95% of answers that I see provided on social media platforms in response to questions asked by people are either entirely incorrect, partially incorrect in a way that makes me want to say, “well, not exactly,” or are incomplete in a way that makes a significant difference.
I chose and choose to focus on creating educational tools and making explanations available for everyone, in one place, not one question at a time.
I began publishing my blog in 2012 as an educational tool and I’m dumbstruck by how many people just want a yes or no answer instead of learning. If one doesn’t take the time to learn, they have no idea if the answers they receive are valid, or if there’s more to the story that they are missing.
Social media can mislead you badly if you don’t have the ability to discern between accurate answers, partially accurate answers, and incorrect answers. Furthermore, opinions differ widely on some topics.
Unfortunately, because there is no genetic genealogy credentialling, there is also no “post-nominal letters,” such as CG for certified genealogist. Therefore, a novice has absolutely no idea how to discern between an expert and another overly helpful novice who is unintentionally providing incorrect or partial information.
Many of us who at one time reliably answered questions have simply gotten burned out at the same question being asked over and over, and no longer regularly engage. Burnout is real. Another issue is that askers often don’t provide enough, or accurate, information, so a significant amount of time is spent in clarifying the information around a question. Furthermore, your CPA, lawyer, and physician don’t answer questions online for free, and neither do most people who are busy earning a living in this field.
DNA educational opportunities, some of which are contained within larger conference agendas, include:
- This blog, DNAexplain, of course, with more than 1600 articles
- RootsTech has an entire DNA tract, including online sessions
- East Coast Genetic Genealogy Conference (Oct 6-8, 2023)
- I4GG is now focused on IGG specifically
- Diahan Southard’s DNA Academy and blog
- Jim Bartlett’s Segmentology blog
- ISOGG – International Society of Genetic Genealogy pages and Facebook group. As with any volunteer endeavor, it’s difficult to find people to update and maintain things, so much of this information is not up to date.
- DNA Adoption classes
- DNAPainter, blog and Facebook group
- Genetic Affairs and Facebook group
- DNAGedcom.com and Facebook user group
- Portions of some Institutes as noted in the genealogy section
- Legacy Family Tree Webinars DNA category
- Blogs, videos and help centers of the vendors: FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, Ancestry, 23andMe.
There are other blogs, of course, some of which were launched by well-known genetic genealogists but are no longer maintained. Blogging is quite time-consuming.
I’ve covered all kinds of genetic genealogy topics in my blog articles. They are a good source of information, education and hands-on training. I attempt to publish two articles weekly, and there are over 1600 available for your enjoyment.
In addition to the initial learning period, you’ll need to make time to stay engaged and maintain your genealogy and genetic genealogy skills.
In addition to training, I think you’d need at least a year interning or working at a junior learning level, minimum. Think of it as your genealogy residency.
- You could choose to work for a vendor in their help center.
- You could choose to work for a genealogy company. I’ve mentioned the largest ones, but there are others as well.
- You could choose to work on your own case studies and those of your friends and family, but if you do, be aware that you won’t have anyone reviewing your work. If you make a mistake or should have approached something differently, and you’re working alone, there’s no one to tell you.
- You could work as a search angel for others. I have mixed emotions about this, in part due to the lack of review and oversight. But also, in part because “free search angels” perpetuate the idea that genealogy “should be” free.
If you want to work in IGG, after training, an internship under an established mentor is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL for a minimum of 100 or so successful closures.
Genealogists and genetic genealogists have the ethical responsibility to NOT MAKE MISTAKES when working on other people’s family. You need to know what you know, what you don’t know, when to get help, from where and with whom.
A Facebook group named “Genealogy Jobs” has been established to discuss opportunities and all of the topics surrounding this subject.
There’s a Genealogy Career Day event on April 22nd where you can interact with professionals including authors, freelance genealogists, certified genealogists, business owners, and an investigative genetic genealogist. Take a look at the topics. If you’re considering whether or not you want to go pro, you’ll be interested. You can sign up here.
The sessions will be uploaded to their YouTube channel, here, after the event.
I hope you’ve found this article useful and helps you decide if this profession is for you. If so, create a plan and execute.
If you decide you do want to go pro, I wish you the best and welcome you to the fast-paced world of professional genealogy or its specialty, genetic genealogy.
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