I’m often asked about being a professional genealogist. Some people are just curious about how one gets to do that. I will admit that when I am in non-genealogy-related social situations, I will sometimes obfuscate a bit. Giving out my profession inevitably results in an extended conversation. It usually begins with clarify that I do not work with rocks, nor do I work on women’s health issues. Then they start becoming interested. They will often start telling me about their own family history, which results in my having to bite my tongue strongly when I hear classically false stories such as the Native American in the family, the three brothers who immigrated together and separated upon arrival, or the family’s name being changed at Ellis Island.
But then there are those who are genuinely interested in how one becomes a professional in a field of amateurs. Often it is because they are considering such a transition themselves, and would like to know how to accomplish it. Here are three things to think about if you are considering becoming a professional genealogist.
1. Practice, Practice, Practice
I am very lucky. I’ve made my living as a professional genealogist for twenty-five years now (I started when I was 5. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.). I do not have a degree in genealogy. In fact, in one of the big ironies of my life, I wanted to be a history major in college, but felt I would not be able to get a job where a history major would be useful.
That said, education is very important to being a professional. The best professionals have a certain area in which they are experts. But they also have a basic working knowledge of a wide variety of subjects. And how long does it take to become an expert? The standard developed by Malcolm Gladwell is 10,000 hours. This is not just 10,000 hours of repetition. It means 10,000 hours of working at something, learning, and adjusting your approach until becomes finely-honed. Not only do you end up with an extensive knowledge about a subject, but you also end up with a great knowledge of where to go to find answers for subjects you don’t know. The longer you have been a genealogist, the greater your chances for becoming successful as a professional.
As part of this process, a great deal of education is necessary. We must learn all we can about genealogical research and methodology. We also need to learn about business: budgeting, finance, marketing, etc. Will we work for a company or as a private contractor? Think of these when moving through this stage:
- Who can help me in my education process as a teacher, mentor, or even a compatriot?
- What resources are out there, not only for genealogy, but also for becoming a professional?
- When will I be ready to become a professional?
- Where do I go to find resources to help me become a professional?3. Resources
There are a number of resources available to those interested in becoming a professional. The Association of Professional Genealogists is open to anyone who works in the field of genealogy, or those interested in working in the field. Joining will allow you access to educational opportunities. Even more importantly, it will provide you with networking opportunities to get to know other professionals. You can also join a ProGen Study Group. These groups meet virtually and use the Professional Genealogy text edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills as a forum for developing professional-level skills. Certainly having your skillset tested by the Board for Certification of Genealogists and/or the International Commission for the Accreditation of Genealogists will tell you if you are ready to make the leap. Marian Pierre Louis also runs an interesting podcast called the Genealogy Professional, which can give you many ideas.