Becoming a Professional Genealogist Overview (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Terminology[edit | edit source]

The words professional genealogist are most often used to describe a person who is hired by clients who pay for their services. Such a professional genealogist may work as an independent researcher offering a variety of services or as an associate in a business group.

However, we want to stress that the word professional can be applied to anyone who works diligently on family history and genealogy matters—anyone who keeps current with news, sources and information in the larger genealogical community; anyone who prides themselves on thorough and meticulous research.

Although this particular course is directed to those who wish to enter genealogy as a career, it is equally applicable to serious family historians. In this sense, the terms genealogist and family historian have equal “value” in our reading material.

Professional Requirements[edit | edit source]

Let’s face it, almost anyone can hang out a shingle calling herself or himself a professional genealogist. Some are neither trained nor properly experienced in the field, and some have unprofessional attitudes.

Presently no country, that we know of, has regulatory licensing to govern the practice and conduct of professional genealogists. One does not hear the usage of “professional engineer” or “professional lawyer.” Such professions do have self-regulating agencies. We are in the habit of using “professional genealogist” to describe a business-person simply because genealogy and family history are worldwide interests pursued by all manner of people as a rewarding hobby. To be a good professional genealogist, we suggest you need:

1. Aptitude[edit | edit source]

A successful genealogist must be part analytical scientist, part social historian and (large) part detective! Having been given (or accumulated) an amount of information, your ability to review it objectively and thereupon apply well-considered reasoning is essential. Likewise after each research period, you need to be able to recognize problems or conflicts, synthesize the evidence for a conclusion, re-state or refine the goal(s) and know how to move forward from there.

It helps to have the instinct to investigate the times and places of any given project. Contemporary politics, religion, laws, ethnicity, geography and local customs all played a part in the ancestor’s life. Having said that, we know that client work is often restricted to too few hours to pursue this in much depth, while those working on their own families do have time to indulge. Your job might be to convince a client of the importance of this aspect.

You should be a relentless pursuer of facts and details, and be able to recall names and places quickly. Naturally organized people tend to do much better as the sheer amount of detail to be organized and analyzed can overwhelm lesser mortals. A little obsessive-compulsiveness doesn’t hurt!

2. Experience[edit | edit source]

Almost everyone goes into this professional field from working on their own family history. Hit and miss, trial and error, you learn about certain resources and sources as you go. You become familiar with certain types of country/regional resources or records, context and interpretation of documents, why they were created, where they are stored, how to access them. You learn to distinguish among the sources you are viewing and analyze the information they contain. You can then feel confident about making conclusions from the evidence you have gathered.

Experience can be the greatest teacher, but regular reference to guidelines and universal standards is a must. Confidence in your professionalism also includes a bit of humility. Even the most experienced genealogists will tell you that no matter how much you know, there is always more to learn.

Some will suggest that a minimum of five solid years of experience doing your own work is necessary before you consider putting yourself on the market. It will take longer than that to consider yourself a professional genealogist, when you become accustomed to working on a succession of many different ancestral families or client problems.

3. Training[edit | edit source]

Training and education are now more widely available than ever. In one sense, training might be construed as working with an established professional as an “apprentice.” Learning from a mentor can be a unique one-on-one experience—if you can find one who is willing, or is so busy she/he needs assistance. Many professionals do prefer to handle their work on their own, as much as they can, without encouraging the competition! However, you will often find they are approachable and helpful if you are working in proximity and need answers to intelligent questions.

We should emphasize that wherever you live, or whatever your personal interests or goals, you can explore the availability of locally-offered genealogy instruction, especially those that include methodology. Taking courses of study (classroom style, by correspondence or Internet instruction), attending institutes and conferences, and being active in your local genealogical community are essential components of your learning curve. More wise advice is to read classic books and journals on regional sources, skill development, case studies, writing style, and so on. While the Internet provides a great deal of informative teaching material, having your own reference books is very comforting. Most of this self-education depends on your own motivation level, and should be ongoing throughout your career.

4. Commitment[edit | edit source]

Commitment to your profession means a business-like approach in all aspects of it, and practicing ethical standards that apply to your clients, your colleagues and your community. Being a professional (for hire) means more than just being a researcher. You are a representative of the profession in all aspects. Commitment is:

  • To yourself, to be the best you can be;
  • To your clients, to provide service and value;
  • To your colleagues and peers, to foster mutual respect;
  • To the general public, to conduct yourself in a knowledgeable, professional manner.

All these topics will be addressed in more detail in the following pages and modules.

Becoming Professional[edit | edit source]

Professionals are paid for their expert time and costs, not for positive results. None of us can guarantee that our research will produce the desired results for a client. Clients must understand this, so it is up to you to be clear about it.

The usual process of becoming a professional begins by dealing with relatively simple requests. These occur when you are asked to search out and copy specific records. In other words, you take direction from the client without any input of evaluation or analysis on your part.

Record agent or records specialist is what this is called in different countries. There is a big demand for this, especially from experienced genealogists or family historians who know exactly what they want you to obtain for them. Most often the client does not give you complete details of the family they are working on. Many professionals are content to provide such a service which has the mutual advantage of quick turn-around time. On the other hand, as you become experienced in this role, you are better able to evaluate the sources you familiarly use, and friends or relatives may begin to ask for your help. Your responses to client enquiries expand with confidence in your knowledge and ability to make connections and suggestions that the client will appreciate.

Genealogists enjoy client work when they have some problem-solving to address, when a client gives full information on the family, initially asking for a research plan toward a specific goal or goals. Fulfilling the research, correlating the results and assembling a written report is hard work. You can’t guarantee positive results. When all of us began on this route, we spent anxiety-ridden hours trying to shape our research into a report that would satisfy ourselves and the client. And let’s be truthful. We often spent hours in research or report time that we did not charge for. It’s called the learning curve!

A client should not be expected to pay for you to learn, but eventually you can expect payment for educating them in your reports. This is part of your experience—to recognize a client who knows little or nothing about genealogy and build into your expense time the extra explanations you need to get them to understand your work.

A truly experienced genealogist is one who can confidently take a client’s request for “trace my family” and follow through with the requisite steps to provide as much ancestry information as possible, with proper charts or narrative. This person has developed sufficient skills in written analysis and presentation of multiple generations of a family.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.