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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Make Your Genealogy Skills Go Pro

How do professional genealogists accomplish so much more? Is it simply knowledge? Do they know more than you? Is it just experience? Have they been clued-in to some secret or magic formula?

The magic theory seems to be pretty popular. In fact, it seems to be the belief held by many people that hire a professional genealogist. Because that's the reason some people will give for not wanting to pay their bill, they say "I could have done this!"

Yes, you could.

If you have the knowledge, which comes from experience.

What's the secret formula to professional genealogists' success? Can you uncover it? | The Occasional Genealogist

There's no secret professional genealogists have discovered. There is no magic formula.

There is one super, massively important factor.


Organization is probably the thread that runs through every professional genealogy skill and separates the really successful (in terms of performance, not money) from the mediocre.

Obviously, every business should be run efficiently. As a hobbyist genealogist, you don't really care about how billable hours are tracked or paperwork is managed. But organization is often the difference between the results from a competent professional and an "amateur" with the same skills and experience.

In fact, this is one of the problems within professional genealogy. I want to mention this quickly because it makes a difference when writing about "professional" genealogy.

There are two sides to the word "professional." There's the "Olympic" side, a professional takes money, an amateur doesn't. Olympians used to have to be amateurs (some still do). There's also the ability side. When you're talking about skills, calling someone an amateur is an insult. It's one of the reasons I say "hobbyist" genealogist.

Anyone can claim to be a professional genealogist. It's hard to tell if the person has professional-level skills or if they are just happy to take your money. That's why we have two organizations to certify or accredit genealogists. That takes time, though. It's the time that's the reason you don't see any letters after my name.

Discussing certification/accreditation is several posts and not the purpose of this one. But this does bring me back to organization.

Being certified or accredited relates to genealogical skill. Hiring a certified/accredited genealogist doesn't actually mean you'll get an efficient genealogist. There's a good chance they have some organizational skills (they found the time to be accredited or certified) but that's not the purpose.

A professional genealogist, in every sense of the word, has professional-level skills but they also conduct and manage genealogy professionally, that is, in an organized manner.

The Overlooked Difference

Did you notice I said "conduct and manage genealogy" not "conduct and manage research?"

That's because genealogy is more than research and for a true professional, organization extends beyond just research.

This post is going to focus on research, but the same kind of distinctions apply to managing your set of knowledge (this can be knowledge in your head or your personal reference library which can be physical books and information or virtual). It can apply to managing your genealogical education.

Organized knowledge and education is usually the "magic" a paid professional provides that amazes the hobbyist client. You can achieve that same level of organization but let's start with research.

How to Research Like a Professional

Organization is so important in genealogy because genealogy is never-ending. There's always another goal to achieve. Sometimes you're working on one fairly small goal for years.

Organization is at the heart of the genealogical research process. It's when people start cheating the process and the best organizational aspects that they get into genealogical trouble.

Let's take a bird's eye view of how a professional genealogist approaches a problem. Stick with me because even if you think "that's for a professional only, that doesn't apply to me," you might be surprised.

Professional Genealogy Research in a Nutshell

When a client approaches a professional, the professional will need to get certain information from the client. What and how much varies from professional to professional and from project to project. That's where we're starting.

Step One

The professional asks herself:

  • Can she do the project?
  • Does she have the time?
  • Does she have the resources?
Resources include:
  • access to the needed records
  • skills to use the records
  • funds related to record access (photocopy costs, cost of ordering a record, etc.)

Of course, if the client's budget will cover enough hours for what they want is also a consideration (for example, a non-genealogist who wants their Mayflower ancestors found in five hours is usually a project no one will even consider negotiating over).

Once the professional decides to take on the project (based on the above considerations), the project starts.

Step Two

Initial Analysis
This is a review of what has been done, any special considerations, and often a review of the lowest hanging fruit as far as sources (i.e. the easiest things to check to kick-start the project).

Step Three

Research Plan
This isn't really that involved. What question has to be answered first and what source or sources are most likely to answer that question. Remember, this is limited by what sources the professional can access based on the parameters of the project.

Step Four

Follow the plan. This can include ordering records, hiring a contractor to do research or a look-up, or any method to execute the plan.

Step Five

Report on the research
This may not be a report to the client. What's important is all vital information is captured before moving on. Because if it's not, it'll be forgotten and work will have to be re-done.

Now the professional goes back and creates another plan to answer the next question. Rarely is a project done with just one plan but it might be (for example, if someone wants a marriage date and place, it sometimes really is easy and that's where the myth of the secret or magic formula comes from).

Now let's compare.

Here is what many hobbyist genealogists do.

Step One

Decide to "do some genealogy."

Step Two

Pick the project of most interest (only excluding projects you know off the top of your head you can't work on).

Step Three

Hop on the Internet and see what's there.

Repeat next time you decide to do some genealogy.

What's the Difference in the Amateur and the Professional?

The difference between the two methods has absolutely nothing to do with the genealogists' skills or experience levels.

The difference is organization.

I'm going to be completely honest with you. I absolutely follow the second progression (sometimes---for my personal research---never for a client). But here's the thing. When I decide to do some genealogy and hop on the Internet (with pretty much nothing happening in-between), I don't really expect to achieve anything.

I expect the same results as if I decided to watch T.V., or do a puzzle, or crochet. It's something to do to relax. It's actually a problem if I do find something. I don't have my notes ready, I usually don't have time to write up a summary or report. Basically, I know I'll have to re-do this research but I scramble to at least leave myself some breadcrumbs.

The difference is so extreme between the steps I know I need to follow and the three-step cheat above, I think of them in different terms. If I want to "do some genealogy" it's like I want to "do a puzzle." What I yearn for is time to "do some research."

How to "Do Research" Not "Do Some Genealogy"

Accomplishing productive genealogical research involves setting aside some quiet time. Ideally you'll have a full day, maybe two in a row. You'll need access to the material related to your previous research (naturally that's ready to be pulled from your files, right?)

For me, I want quiet time on my dual monitors (notes/report on one monitor, Internet on the other) or at a high-value repository (i.e. not just escaping to the local library).

My favorite is a multi-day trip so I can work on reports at night. This maximizes research time at the repository---I do report as I go but much correlation and analysis and report finalization/planning can be done that night. *sigh* I miss those days.

Those days are not coming back anytime soon. I have a preschooler and a kindergartner. I can't take the emotional trauma of being separated for days and neither can they. Eventually, they will be teenagers and they will probably be thrilled for me to leave them alone for days. But that's not soon (and I have no desire for it to be).

So what's a genealogist to do?

If you've been reading this blog, you've seen bits and pieces of that answer.

Occasional Genealogists have HAVE to be organized. You will never get anywhere if you aren't. You research too infrequently to remember what happened last time (and that's a bad idea, relying on your memory, even if you do research frequently).

But there's a reason genealogists take the three-step cheat.

It's fast.

I understand.

You NEED to work through all five steps I outlined for a professional. Yes, even step one. You need to decide which project to work on using the same criteria as a professional.

As a hobbyist, you need to take notes during step one. Yes, not only do you need to evaluate the feasibility of the project, you need to do a little extra.

You don't just say, "no, I don't want to work on your project." That project is a part of YOUR genealogy, not some random client's. You may not work on it today but you probably need to work on it eventually. Once again...

What's a genealogist to do?

Occasional Genealogists, people that are really busy and only have small amounts of free time for genealogy, need organization. But they need super organization.
  • Those five steps need to be broken down into little bitty bites.
  • You need a record of what bite you took last and what bite to take next.
It sounds like a lot of extra work, doesn't it?

Honestly, it is. So I've found a way to help you out.

Uh oh! You've reached a problem in this post. Below is information on The Occasional Genealogist Planner which is not available right now. It was a lot of work to update it so I've had to rearrange some things on the business end of this blog so...

All the fabulous material to help you break down your research will be returning but not as the Planner and not until late 2021 or even 2022.

In the meantime, check out The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap. It's free and it gives you a variation on how to make sure you're following all the necessary steps for a genealogy project. Obviously, the focus is on a brick wall (a difficult genealogy project that has you stuck).

Super Organization for Occasional Genealogists

I've created The Occasional Genealogist Planner. I'm starting to wonder if calling it a "planner" was a good idea. I love a good planner and I've been accumulating blog planners and solopreneur business planners for a few years. That was my inspiration and to me, a genealogy planner sounds really exciting.

You might not be familiar with the type of planner I'm thinking of so let me explain.

The Occasional Genealogist Planner isn't just a calendar. You do get a dated set of 2018 calendars so you WILL have a place to write down your planned genealogy.

The planner I buy for my business aren't just a Day-timer. They are a complete organizing set. That's what The Occasional Genealogist Planner is. You get calendars but you also get a framework for being organized.

The hardest part of creating The Planner is I don't know what you want to work on or what your skill level is. That's part of the reason this is a planner. We all have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That's the foundation.

The Planner is a digital product you print and assemble yourself. This allows you to create a binder where you know your next genealogy task is located. If you don't want to use a binder, you can assemble your Planner in a manner that works for you.

Since it's not a pre-printed, bound planner, you can include the items related to your specific research projects or educational goals. I've included an assortment of forms and suggestions to help you do more genealogy this year.

Genealogy Suggestions?

That's why this is for Occasional Genealogists. I've broken the steps of the research process into bite-size pieces. You don't have to spend time breaking the research process up and then spend time deciding what to do.

I've tried to make it possible for you to decide what to do in a minute or less so you maximize the use of your time. Since everyone's genealogy is different, these are suggestions.

The Planner's theme is Inspiration + Organization = Success.

We've talked about how organization is necessary. The Planner gives you a calendar to organize your time and can also be a place where you are organized.

Creating a binder where you can store what you need to work on a genealogy project also allows for increased organization (if you store all your research in binders, this should be your "active" binder).

The Planner also provides suggestions, bite-size suggestions created from the organized research process, these are the inspiration.

Beyond Just Research

Let's go back and consider the professional's step one again. This is the step where they decide whether they are capable of completing the project proposed by the client.

Your step one has all the same considerations. But as I mentioned, you don't reject a project and never think of it again. The Planner is also designed to help you "accept" more projects.


There's more to genealogy than just research.

The Planner also has suggestions of organization and education tasks.

  • Sometimes you can't start a project because you can't find your notes, or the records you copied. 
  • Sometimes you don't start a project because it's in an area of research you're unfamiliar with. 
  • Sometimes you don't start a project because it'll cost money or require travel.
When it's your own research, you need to find time for these projects, at some point.

Get Organized from the Start

Organizing the Existing

The Planner breaks down preparing a project before you even get to the initial analysis/planning stage. When you're an Occasional Genealogist and you try to organize your existing research AND do new research in one sitting, you usually get interrupted and have to start over another time.

By organizing the preparation of a project, you won't' have to repeat work. You'll also have tasks that can be completed in small amounts of time which almost always means you can do genealogy more often (it's just less genealogy at once). If you record your preparation, you'll know that project is ready for the next step and it'll be much easier to pick it up and get started when you have a bit of free time.

Organizing Education

Having a plan for your genealogy education can make a huge impact. Just like picking a project, you may not have time to decide what topic you need to learn about, find the materials, and do the learning all at once. The Planner provides the same inspiration + organization structure so your genealogy skills can flourish. This will allow you to accomplish more and probably more in less time.

Organizing Your Funds

Finally, I'm sure you've ignored research projects because you can't hop on the Internet and work on them. The Planner can't give you inspiration about which project is worth the costs associated with it, but it does have tools to help you organize a budget.

Make Your Genealogy Skills Go Pro

Experience and knowledge are necessary to have professional quality genealogy skills. What really makes a difference is organization, though.

As an Occasional Genealogist, it's too easy to skip the organization to try and squeeze in a bit of research. This usually won't take your genealogy very far, in fact, you'll usually be in a loop of repeating part or all of the research you've done before.

Occasional Genealogists that supercharge their organization and break down genealogy into small, organized bites, can do more genealogy and accomplish more. This is the closest you can get to doing professional-quality genealogy in short sessions. It's absolutely possible to achieve the same research results, it'll just take longer than if you did the same amount of work in one long session.

If you're like me and long sessions of genealogy are not in your immediate future, choose super organized, super-short sessions instead. You'll find your genealogy skills will start to go pro.