How To Become a Genealogist 2023 (A Complete Guide)

A genealogist is a career choice that many have built from their own passions when it comes to exploring lineage and their own family history.

Many family history lovers will have watched family discovery programs like BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? and have been inspired to discover long-lost family members that they might have.

This has perhaps led to more individuals pursuing a career within genealogy due to the pleasure it provides them personally. Being able to find their own ancestors is one thing but to use this skill set to help others is highly rewarding, to say the least.

It's important to ask yourself whether or not this is something you want to do in a professional capacity or if you're happy to just do it as a hobby. There are some that do on the side to other jobs or as a supplement to the main employment they have. Whatever your reasons, this guide will share with you the guidance you need to become a genealogist.

What Are Professional Genealogists?

A professional genealogist is a person who gets paid for the research they do, which varies depending on their qualifications or training received. It can also vary depending on the type of job they do.

The field of genealogy is one that branches out into a variety of career paths beyond just family history. For some, it can involve working as a private investigator or working within investigative genetics alongside law enforcement.

Genealogists wear many different hats from editors, writers, research trip consultants, librarians, and more. This is a career path that could take you from one direction to the next before you come to a career choice that's right for you.

It might not be for everyone, but the skills and experience you gain from this field of study is one that you can take all over the world.

Discovering ancestry as a professional genealogist

Professional genealogists study family ancestry by gathering information, doing genetics testing, and sourcing witness accounts. From there, they access and analyze the data they have to discover the client's ancestry required, whether looking for one particular line of family or exploring the family tree in its entirety.

Genealogists will also work alongside other individuals who help aid the discovery of family history. From archivists to historians and business owners, there are a lot of hands in the pot when it comes to finding a family and persons of interest.

Those who are already within the professionalism will be well versed with historical documents and records relating to immigration, tax, and property. When they're certified, they may also be able to access certain records that aren't available to the public. This is especially in the case of private investigators.

What Business Skills Do You Need To Become A Professional Genealogist?

When researching how to become a genealogist, the individual will need a range of skills both in the area of genealogy and business skills in general. Not every genealogist will work within a company but may be self-employed. This way of working with contract and freelance work isn't for everyone, so it's important to consider if you're up to the challenge.

Here are a few skills and talents that are worth having when it comes to pursuing a career as a professional genealogist.

  • Detailed knowledge of history

To be able to gather information efficiently and in an accurate manner, many genealogists will study areas of history that relate to what specialisms they're looking to gain. As a result, they may do extra studies within law history and other history-orientated programs.

  • Research skills

A lot of those looking to become professional genealogists will need to have the ability to research and conduct research well. They'll be detailed in their abilities and will have the knowledge and where to look for certain records. This is not just online but offline, too, as a lot of genealogy has been done before the internet existed!

  • Building portfolios

In order to build upon experiences and to ensure a proper understanding of the work being conducted, individuals within this field should be able to research projects outside their client studies. This can further hone genealogy skills so that you can improve upon each client you work with.

  • Business and financial skills

In relation to business skills, knowledge of how to work independently is important as many don't rely on the backing of a company to pay them or give them projects. Financial skills are just as important, especially when it comes to helping pay the bills!

  • Written and public communication skills

As a professional genealogist, you need to be able to converse with a variety of personalities and people that you might not typically communicate with.

To present the results of your research, for example, written communications skills are a must, and public speaking is something you may need to work on. Some professional genealogists conduct lectures in their spare time.

  • Great time management

There can often be projects that you work on and that require good time management. For example, you may work in investigative genetics, which is often a time-limited environment. The same can be said when working in public settings like a library, where information needs to be found quickly.

  • Problem-solving

One of the last and major skills that can benefit your success within genealogy is problem-solving. Problem-solving can help when it comes to handling information that might be somewhat hard to decipher.

Not everything in history is easy enough to understand, which requires a lot of skill to overcome.

10 Steps To Becoming A Professional Genealogist

Still keen on becoming a professional genealogist? Well, with that in mind, here are ten steps that will get you closer to becoming a professional genealogist in the future.

1. Understand what you want to achieve.

As explained above, it's up to you whether or not you'd like to pursue a career in genealogy or whether you'd like to approach it simply as a hobby. Discovering your own family history can be a lot easier than having to work out a client's family history.

The first step to becoming a professional genealogist is to outline the goals you're looking to achieve during the time spent investing in this field. It might be to expand your general knowledge or go into a specific area of genealogy that allows you to secure a dream job you've always wanted.

For example, some may choose a degree that's geared towards becoming an investigator, and others may want a broad course that helps give them all the skills and knowledge needed to be a teacher. The decision is up to you!

2. Do your research on what job you are most interested in.

What job are you looking at? Perhaps there are a few routes to go down that are interesting to you. It's a good idea to look at all of your options and to ask fellow genealogists already in their jobs what they think of it and whether it's a good match for you.

While a job title might seem exciting, the reality of it might not match up with the goals you want to achieve in genealogy.

3. Consider a degree program or self-education.

You don't necessarily need to get a degree to be a professional genealogist, but getting some experience and knowledge is worthwhile. As a genealogist, you should always be searching for more information and to expand your knowledge base as wide as you can.

The more you can specialize in or have more knowledge of, the more valuable you become to employers and clients. There are lots of degree programs out there that you can invest in, or alternatively, there's self-education, where you can make use of cheap or free webinars and courses.

The online world has provided a lot of opportunities, especially for those who haven't got the funds to spend thousands on a degree.

4. Start personal projects where possible.

Learning more about your own family histories can help you in your journey to becoming a professional genealogist. If you want to work in a professional capacity in the future, then start personal projects where you have the spare time to do so.

As a result of this, you end up developing your own portfolio that's made up of personal projects and any paid clients you've managed to acquire before going full-time. Look at what you could be doing more of and perhaps specializing in so that you can give yourself a better opportunity at getting the career or job you're after.

5. Develop business skills

Genealogical skills are just one facet of a genealogist's talents, and as discussed, it's important to have plenty of business skills in that toolkit of yours. Developing business skills will certainly be helpful to do, especially when it comes to going self-employed.

Even if you decide to work for an organization, you shouldn't necessarily quit on improving your business skills as they can still come in handy within this capacity too.

You may also have a change of career path where you go from full-time to self-employed, so it's always good to hone your skills on the off-chance that your career path changes.

6. Practice your writing and public speaking skills

Another part of your budding genealogist development is practicing your writing and public speaking skills. Some can have a natural talent for either, but sadly, not everyone is blessed with the same talents.

To improve upon your genealogical skills, work on improving your writing skills by documenting findings regularly and using tools to correct any grammar and spelling errors. When you're earning as a genealogist, it's always good to build on your craft by investing in writing courses.

When you're not working, use that time wisely by taking online workshops and courses in-person where possible.

7. Volunteer where you're able to

Volunteering with a local genealogical society or with a community on a project is a great way of connecting with the right people and getting experience first-hand in genealogy. Volunteer work, although not paid, is a good way of exploring genealogy before pursuing formal education. Even professional genealogists will look to volunteer when they have time.

8. Join the Association of Professional Genealogists

The Association of Professional Genealogists is an organization that's worth being a part of, especially when it comes to getting important information on research standards and networking with other fellow genealogists.

Members will get access to the code of ethics for professional genealogy practice and a quarterly journal with lots of helpful articles that can be used within the work you do.

9. Get to know your local Genealogical community

It's important to remember that there's a world outside of the internet. There may be a local genealogical society that you're unaware of and could be a great source of knowledge if you're specializing in local genealogy for client work.

You may also want to look for a National Genealogical Society in order to expand your expertise and potential client pool for the future. It's also great to have local experts and amateur genealogists to lean on for support when it's needed.

10. Apply for certification

Finally, becoming certified is essential when it comes to taking that step up into professional genealogy. It can help put you ahead of other competition and those that might be going for the same contract or project as you are. For employers looking for full-time employees, it's a good thing to have on your resume.

To become certified on the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), you'll need a work portfolio that can be acquired through the professional and amateur work you conduct.

Final Thoughts

Whether you're looking to be an amateur genealogist who helps out friends and locals, or you're looking to step into a career, it's worth using all of the tips mentioned above. Hopefully, you'll be fortunate enough to find an area of genealogy that you love.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

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