Meet the Author
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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How to Create a Genealogy Research Plan : The Secret Solution

Ready to find the secret to creating a genealogy research plan? Here's what this blog post covers...

The secret to planning your genealogy research.
  • How to create a custom research plan template
  • Parts of a genealogy research plan template
  • Super efficient digital plan recommendation

How do you create a research plan?

That's a popular question genealogists ask when they reach that exciting (or is it terrifying?) stage where their progress has slowed but they are now totally addicted to genealogy!

You know what it's like.

You've been researching for a little while, maybe even a "long while" and suddenly you have to figure out another way to grow your family tree.

Somehow, you've learned you should have been creating a "research plan" all along.

But how?

If that's you, no matter how long you've been wondering how you're going to start research planning, you're in good company.

Research planning for family history is an odd skill. It is sooooooo important. But it also seems so elusive. I mean, how hard can it be, planning to research, when you've been researching all along. And then you sit down to do the planning and...

[nothing happens]

Or maybe you feel you've been successfully planning research but honestly, it seems like such a waste of time.

Don't worry, this is perfectly normal. 

[This is a little diversion from this post's main topic of "how" to research plan. If you had these questions I wanted to answer them before moving on. If you don't, feel free to skip ahead.

Are you wondering if you must create a formal research plan or if they are only for professional genealogists? The answer is "no" to both. But with that being said, you should create a written research plan. What I describe below can be a formal research plan. Research plans are always customized to the project so they don't have one "formal" format. So don't worry about that. A good place to start is to follow the suggestion below and then adapt it to fit your personal preferences, even if you are a professional genealogist!

Also (still on this small diversion), why do you want to research plan? Planning is essential for busting genealogy brick walls. It also helps you avoid distractions, you know, all those bright shiny objects you chase down. Whether we're talking about brick walls or avoiding distractions, planning helps you focus, whether that's on a particular family or a particular ancestor, specific topics or a type of record, etc. Chasing every shiny object is a major problem for modern genealogists but working through all the necessary research is a universal genealogy problem, no matter the time period!]

This isn't a fairy tale so I'm going to cut to the happy ending at the start.

Simplify.

That is the secret solution to how to create a genealogy research plan.

How to Create a Genealogy Research Plan Template

A good research plan should be a simple plan. To simplify this even more, you can use a research plan template. I've created a few over the years but the biggest problem is some people want to use paper, others want to use Google Docs, some like Evernote, and on and on.

If we're keeping this simple, a good idea is to create your own template. Here is what you should include as you're learning to plan.

  • a "header" that makes sure you know what the plan refers to, where it should be filed, etc.
  • the exact question you are trying to find a solution to with this plan
  • why you need to find this solution
  • a list of the 1-5 sources you will use with a "citation" and why you think that source will help
  • any information that is relevant to getting or using those sources
  • room to make notes if your plan is interrupted or isn't completed

Additionally, I actually recommend you turn your plan into your notes and then turn that into your "report" to yourself. This really only works if you're using a digital document because you will ideally insert the notes and report into parts of the plan, not tack them onto the end (more on that after I explain the parts of the template).

[As a side note, if you are using paper, make sure you are keeping notes, writing reports or summaries, and keeping a research log whenever you work on your research project, in addition to creating research plans. Digital plans give you more flexibility and that's what I'll talk about after the parts of the template.]

I'll explain each part because I know just the descriptions above don't have you heading off to create your template (yet!).

Parts of a Genealogy Research Plan Template

Header

The first thing in your plan is the header of your template. It will be the section that varies the most depending on your own process. It should at least include the date you create your plan. Trust me, when you create a plan in 2006 and don't look at it again until 2018, you know it has to be re-done. Even if you haven't worked on the actual research and found new information, what sources are available and how you access them has changed. Date your plan, just in case.

You also need information to know what research project this plan belongs with. This is quite personal.

Are you working on a book? Describe it well enough this is clear. Are you in search of a common ancestor among your DNA matches; looking for a death certificate, birth certificate, or church marriage record; seeking certain family members, trying to find a marriage date, death date, or other fact? Maybe this particular project isn't about such specific goals but is researching one family line or brick wall ancestor.

Describe your research goal, even if it is the same as your research question but especially if it is broader than the specific research question this plan is designed to answer.

The details in the header supplement what is in your question so you know "where to file" your plan.

If you have a paper filing system, your header may contain the file name or number. If you're working in somethng like Evernote, you might put in some keywords (and you'd of course add tags to the Note). You might have a far less formal "filing" system because you can search for what you need electronically. Just make sure what your system needs is included in the header.

For some people, the header will be very brief. For others, it will have a lot of details. If you don't know what to include, it needs the date and any surnames or locations not mentioned in the question. If it is a paper plan, make sure your pages are numbered ("1 of 5" not just "page 1").

The next thing you should include in your template can really change how you plan.

Question

I've labeled this next item "question" but I prefer to create a "hypothesis" to test for each plan. This is the extremely specific question this round of genealogical research is trying to answer. It's easier to keep it narrow if you test a hypothesis because a hypothesis is a statement you test as true or false. A question can be open-ended and that doesn't create a simple plan.

To create a simple plan, decide what hypothesis you should test first. This might be an obvious answer you want to test or it might be the only answer you can test. Here are some examples of a hypothesis:

  • "John and Mary married in Smith County, Tennessee, between 1852-1855."
  • "My grandfather lived at 2306 N. Broad Street when the 1950 census was enumerated."
  • "Rita Wilson sold her livestock between 1884 and 1886 so she could buy lot 261."

The above are quick summarized examples. You should come up with a hypothesis of this style but when you put it on your plan, make sure you have full details like John and Mary's last names, maybe even if your hypothesis is they married in a certain type of church. Give the name of your grandfather and the city. The location and full details of lot 261 need to be included.

Imagine you were going to give this hypothesis to a genealogy friend and they are going to actually create the plan for you. What details would they need? Because, if you get interrupted, you might essentially be a stranger trying to finish the plan!

Why

I struggle with including "why" I'm creating a plan. It always seems too obvious at the time. A few months (or years) later, you've completely lost your train of thought and wonder why you decided to test that hypothesis.

In professional genealogy, we have more time and write longer reports. Much of this "why" gets taken care of either by completing a series of research or writing a detailed report about the research problem.

Just assume you'll get interrupted. Leave yourself a hint as to why this hypothesis was important and/or why you are testing it. This might be because that is the only source you have access to for this project (details of the project should be in the header if they aren't obvious from your hypothesis).

For example, why would I test if my grandfather lived at that address during the 1950 census? First, my goal is to find my parents in the 1950 census, the first they would appear in (FYI, that is two different goals but this is often how we start before creating a plan). I created this hypothesis before the 1950 census was indexed for the state I'm searching. So the type of record available to me is the unindexed 1950 census. Once it is indexed, I would have a different plan because I can use the record differently.

My father described (in an email in 2002) where he lived shortly after he was born. I was able to use that to find the enumeration district and read the census records but couldn't find the family listed. Then I discovered my grandfather listed in a 1951 city directory. So, my goal is to find my father, who was an infant. I have an address for my grandfather in 1951. The family should have been living together and I don't have an exact address for my father so I will test the address I have for my grandfather.

I've explained the background, which is helpful to include in your plan, but you can summarize it with a why. Here's how I'd create a succinct why for this problem, "I can't find my father in the 1950 census based on the details he put in his email in 2002. Instead, I'll look for my grandfather at the address he was listed at in the 1951 city directory."

[BTW, originally I tried to give a "why" example for the hypothesis about Rita Wilson but it involved so much background information it was too confusing. You might run into that kind of situation when creating your own research plan. Many plan templates include a "background" section. I don't list it because if you turn your plans into notes and then a report, the background should actually be summarized in the previous report. Write a longer "why" if needed for clarity, though. You can also copy and paste from your previous report to create a "background" section if that is important.]

If I only recorded my hypothesis, I won't follow my train of thought when I'm doing future research on this project. Hopefully, I'll write a report to myself after I complete the plan but in case I don't, I need to explain to myself what I'm thinking.

Remember, the best way to do research planning is keeping it simple. This is fastest using a template but a template customized to how YOU do family history research as well as customizing it to your genealogy problem. You might include a lot of details in the items listed above or they might be very bare bones. This is normal. The header and why sections (which may or may not include background information) should vary depending on the research project and the research already completed.

Sources

Your plan should only involve between one and five sources. One and three is even better. If you have more than five sources, that is not a simple plan.

[Limiting your sources relates to what hypothesis you test. In the example with Rita Wilson, the goal is finding her maiden name. I've done so much research, I have to create a hypothesis that seems unrelated. That's to keep the plan simple. If I used the particular question "what is Rita's maiden name," it is either an impossible plan-- i.e. there's no clear place to start-- or a plan involving hundreds of sources. I went from this big question to a very specific hypothesis to keep my own research plan simple.]

As you get experience, you can fudge the number of sources a little bit but think of it this way. We don't create plans for hypothetical situations. What I mean is, you don't say, "if I find x I'll then check source 2, if I find y I'll check source 4." If what you do next depends on the results, create a plan only for the first source. If you are going to check four sources, no matter the results you find, list all four.

[In the impossible Wilson maiden name example, I shouldn't need to check hundreds of sources. If I find an answer, that changes what I do next. But the problem is, if I don't list all the possible sources, where should I start? That's why I need a hypothesis to test, not the question "What's Rita's maiden name?" That large question doesn't help me create a simple plan with a few key sources.]

Digital options are your friend when we're talking about short simple plans. You can very quickly create a new plan by copying the research plan you just finished and making a few updates (or have a plan without sources listed ready to be updated as soon as you finish the first plan, you don't have to start with a blank research plan template, you can copy one where all the information but the sources is the same or similar and edit it. That's a way to do very efficient research!). It's more important to finish the research process (plan > notes > report) than create a long plan. Long plans cause problems!

You can also create a list of potential sources you'll pop into a plan once you see the results of the first plan. This isn't a "must do" but an option if that is more efficient.

[Tip: If you're on a research trip where there are original records, or any type of unique genealogical records, having a list of them ready to go into a plan is a great way to have a clear picture of the "best" sources to use in that situation. This allows you to create plans testing the best hypothesis while maximizing the types of records available to you in this unique situation. Compare this to researching where you decide the next step based on randomly moving from source to source. A good plan doesn't need to take a lot of time! The important thing is to plan. You can create a detailed plan quickly using a customized template and when appropriate, a list of sources.]

Create short simple plans where it's easy to finish them, take notes, and summarize your findings. If the research is so easy your plan, with notes, and summary is one page, good job. You kept it simple!

Now let's talk about the dreaded "citation." You want enough details the source is clear. In some situations, you need to capture additional source information (parts of a citation) once you start researching (like the page number where information is found, you can't know that ahead of time).

Make a note, if needed, of any "citation" details you should capture while doing the research.

You don't want any confusion in future over what source you intend to check so be clear. I specialize in "Occasional Genealogy" for a reason. I know creating a research plan is often easier to do (when you're short on time) if you do it before you have a chance to do the research. But sometimes you don't get to that research as soon as you think you will. You want to know exactly what source you intended to use so you can execute the plan or so you know you've already used that source and you can trash that plan.

As with your hypothesis, make sure it's clear why you think that source will help. Sometimes this really is obvious (you're looking for a marriage in Smith County, Tennessee between 1852-55, you check the marriage records for those dates in that county, you probably don't need to include a "why" in that case). Sometimes you should explain to your future self why that source is important, though.

Just in Case

I've already said it, assume you'll get interrupted. If you find your plan in future, you don't want to start using it if you've already completed it. Make a note on the plan to indicate its "status." Better yet, use the following suggestion for digital plans...

The #1 Way to Create a Genealogy Research Plan (and actually use it)

Taking your notes on your plan and then turning the whole file into the summary/report is about as efficient as you can get in genealogy.

What you should include for a plan is only slightly different than what you should capture in your research notes. Most of the parts of the plan are also included in a reporting template. Why bother creating separate items?

Back in the paper-age, we had to create each item separately. With digital files, it makes far more sense to make it one seamless process.

There is one warning.

You still need to finish a plan. They still need to be simple.

You could just keep adding on to your plan in a single file but this gets confusing in various situations. You never know if you'll be in such a situation in future.

Include the parts for a plan template (see if you want to add any of the note template sections from this post) and then focus on creating the shortest, easiest, simplest plans you can.

If you only need to check one source before you decide on the next source, make a plan with just one source to check. I bet it'll be really easy to copy that plan and update it to create the next plan.


What happens when you run out of plans to create? It's time to review all your reports (because you turned each plan into a report) and see if you can write up a solution to your problem. If not, you usually have some ideas for other sources you can check or there's something you need to learn more about.


This was a plan-centric look at the genealogy research process. If you want to learn about it in a different way, check-out our free Brick Wall Solution Roadmap.