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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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What to Do Before Hiring a Genealogist [+Checklist]

In this post, we’ll go over what to do with your genealogy research before hiring a genealogist.

  • Why you need to follow some essential steps before hiring a pro.
  • The three things you want to do.
  • What you'll get from this process, regardless if you actually hire someone or not!

What to Do Before Hiring a Genealogist: Essential Steps

Don't skip these essential steps if you're planning to hire a professional genealogist!


Thinking about hiring a genealogist to help with your family history research? It can be a real game-changer! As I mentioned in my previous posts "Is Hiring a Genealogist Worth It?" and "How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Genealogist?," professional genealogists provide the expertise, source access, and experience needed to uncover hidden connections and speed up your research.

But before you dive in and hire a pro, it's super important to get your genealogy information organized. Doing a bit of prep work can save you money and help you get better results. Plus, you might even stumble upon some exciting discoveries on your own, which is always a fun bonus!

In this post, we’ll go over the key steps you need to take before hiring a genealogist. Whether you decide to bring in a pro or keep digging on your own, these tips will help you make the most of your research.

I've got a free checklist of these steps in The Occasional Genealogist Resource Library. Sign up for the Library, here.

Why Preparation Matters

I've been a professional genealogist nearly all of my adult life. I have seen so many genealogy projects, even going back before I started taking clients. There's one thing that is (sadly) consistent. It's a lack of preparation before hiring a pro, or even before asking a friend or colleague for help.

I've had a handful of clients that had everything prepped and ready and it made such a huge difference in the results I could provide. They got such a better value for what they paid versus clients that just didn't know what to do other than send me a link to their online tree. It's such a major issue, I created my course "Brick Wall Simplified" to provide an in-depth resource to help potential clients as well as those who want to hire themself.

So why is preparing so key? You're paying a professional to do something for you. Shouldn't you just be able to pay them and not worry about it?

Yes, you can do that. But here's what's different if you're a hobbyist genealogist hiring help versus if you were say, hiring a painter to repaint a room. You've already done a bunch of work. If a painter walks into a room and it's half painted, and half painted well, they can pick-up where you left off. All they have to do is start what you hired them to do and they can instantly see the situation.

You can not see the situation in genealogy. Ever. In genealogy, it always takes explanation to understand where a project stands. Your family tree can not portray the true situation. It's only part of the story.

Are you getting an idea what the problem is?

If you don't prep your information, the professional is going to start from scratch or from what they can see. That almost always means they will redo work you've already done and suggest you do things you've already tried. 

Let's consider this with the painter example.

This is like finding a painter, bringing them to your front door, asking them to paint "a room" and then walking off. They'll have to guess what room to paint and what color and finish to use. It doesn't matter the skill of the professional in such a situation, if you don't provide the right details, you won't get the results you are envisioning.

None of us would think hiring a painter and saying "paint the bathroom" would be a good idea when what we wanted was to have the hall powder room redone in a pink faux German plaster with dark trim. Yet most people think they can leave out equally important details for their genealogy problem.

[A genealogy project and a painting project don't mesh exactly as examples and that's likely why so many people don't understand the amount of detail needed for a genealogy project. Telling the genealogist who you want researched and providing a link to your online tree is like hiring a painter to paint a room. You have gotten more specific than asking them to paint the outside of a house, the whole inside, or even doing a related service they offer. A painting project requires a lot fewer details from you. Providing reports and your research log are like specifying the room and picking a paint color. If this information only exists in your head, the three things we suggest you do below will go a long way to getting you the results you want.]

Three Things to Do with Your Research Before You Hire a Professional Genealogist

There are three things you can do to help get the best results possible for the money you're going to pay. The good news is, these aren't binary choices. You don't have to follow these steps perfectly to get any result. The better job you do on your prep, the better the results you can get. But any prep is better than none. Basically, you've got nothing to lose by trying this prep work and a lot to potentially lose if you don't.

Before we get to these "steps," one thing to realize is every professional genealogist is different. We're people with different strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, just like you. I explain what to do as specifically as I can because I know most of my clients have needed this level of detail. But I explain this the way I want to see information. You should do these three things in general for any professional but exactly how you do it can vary.

Get the free checklist of these steps in The Occasional Genealogist Resource Library. Sign up for the Library, here.

Here are the three steps.

1. Pick ONE Genealogy Problem to Focus On

This is perhaps the number one most important thing to do and the thing you must do for every professional or suffer the consequences (I mean monetary cost when I say consequences). Any experienced genealogist can take your vague project and turn it into something they can work on. This is very much like hiring a painter to paint "a room" without information on which room or what color. The painter can paint but will they paint what you want or in a color you want if you aren't specific?

Experienced professionals will often force you to be more specific but you can get your project going faster and get a better estimated cost if you decide exactly what you are interested in before you contact a professional. Less experienced professionals may not know what questions to ask you so if you're vague, you'll end up spending more money on your project (this is something to watch out for if you're hiring someone that costs less and is less experienced, you may not save money if they don't guide you to a specific enough project).

So how do you do this prep step? This one's the easiest.

Good starting points for a project are wanting to find a specific person, date, place, or event. If you're looking for the father of someone, a death or burial place, or the country of origin of an immigrant, those are specific people, dates, places, and events. But you may have a larger project that is still specific.

Maybe you want to join a lineage society. You either want to start by having the professional investigate which branch in your tree is likely to result in membership or telling them which branch you want researched for that purpose (telling them membership is the goal is key in this type of project). You might want to create a gift for someone and the research is for that purpose. You might want to start researching a branch of the family tree and make more choices once you see the results.

All of these are fairly narrow projects or a professional can quickly help you narrow the project to exactly what you want to start with. Get as specific as possible. Your goal may be joining a lineage society but it's just one date/place requirement for your application that has you stuck. Your professional needs to know what information you want and for what purpose. Professional genealogists usually have to try alternative solutions. If you don't provide an important detail, you may get an alternative piece of information that is equivalent but only for a different type of project.

The details matter in genealogy.

2. Gather and Review

The next thing you need to do, and this is after you decide on your narrowed project, is gather everything you have about that project. That's why you do this next. It can be a big task if you've been researching a long time. You don't want to be hunting for everything on a set of grandparents when your project ends up being about the father of one of them. Narrow your project and then gather and review.

This step is the most complicated and the one who's results will vary the most between professional genealogists. I created Brick Wall Simplified to give my clients an exact way to gather, review, and summarize. It walks through what I want to see and even how I like to see it (this allows me to work as fast as possible so the client gets the most bang for their buck). 

Other professionals may want different material and a different presentation. However, Brick Wall Simplified can also be used if the person you're hiring is yourself. In other words, it's a way to gather, review, and summarize regardless if you will hire someone or you will do the follow-up research.

The reason Brick Wall Simplified works for both situations is why gathering and review is key when hiring a professional. This is where you double check what you've already done. You relay this to the professional so they don't repeat that work. The more succinctly you can relay this information, the better results you get (i.e. the professional spends less time reviewing this information).

This is your chance to recreate a research log if you didn't track your research as you worked (it isn't possible to completely recreate a research log after the fact but the best shot is when reviewing). You might even discover you've had the solution to your problem all along but forgot about it or didn't recognize it as a solution when you first found it.

The professional's work (and yours if you're the researcher) is only as good as the foundation it is built on. Finding ALL the work you've already done and reviewing it is the first step in making sure the foundation is complete. Then you need to summarize it. 

Hint: Your family tree is not gathering and reviewing. It is a family tree. Most people did work that is not attached to their family tree. This should be seen in their research log or other tracking method and includes the research you did that did not provide results you could enter in your tree. 

Many genealogists also found information that never made it to their tree. Additionally, a family tree does not explain how the attached sources lead to the relationship and information. The professional deduces this if the information in the tree matches the information in the sources but if any of it conflicts, the tree itself doesn't explain how certain information was chosen. This is part of summarizing or reporting.

I think of my online tree like a file cabinet. A file cabinet does not tell you about your research. It simply holds copies of what you've found. An online tree is a better organizational structure for lineage-linked data than a traditional file cabinet and it can provide a summary of information, too. But it does not show or tell how you reached your results.

It can be deduced the attached record(s) provided the information seen in the tree but it does not explain conflicting information, which variation is correct, information that doesn't have an attached source, or what you have tried that is not attached. It's a great filing cabinet since it's maybe three clicks to open a document, but it doesn't provide most of what the professional needs. If you did a good job researching, that means just an online tree will leave the professional redoing the quality work you already did.

What's mainly missing from your family tree is your research log and summaries or reports. That leads us to step 3.

3. Summarize

Summarizing, at the least, is explaining where the project stands. If you don't gather and review, you should at least summarize what you remember. 

Here are some basic questions to get started with. You can answer these for yourself and then try and summarize the project for a professional based on your answers. If you come up with more questions as you work through these, write down the question and your answer.

  • What is the project (that was the first task)?
  • Why is that the project? In other words, why do you need help with this problem?
    • Is information missing or conflicting?
    • Do you have a hypothesis but not proof?
      • Why is that your hypothesis?

If you keep coming back to "I'm stuck," with no idea of a possible answer (a possible answer is a "hypothesis"), a research log is vital. Not knowing why you're stuck or how to get unstuck means the professional needs to know what you've tried.

If your answer to the second question above is "I'm stuck," and you don't have a research log, start describing in writing what you've tried. Get as specific as you are able. (Hint: just start writing this down for yourself. You'll remember things out of order. It's important to remember so organize your information later--do organize it to allow the professional to review it as quickly as possible, time equals money in a genealogy project).

Your professional will have questions if all you give them are names, dates, and places. If you cite your sources, that helps but it takes time to review sources. If it's necessary to actually look at copies of the documents, that takes more time than if you summarize the project and cite your sources. Once again, time equals money in a genealogy project.

With Brick Wall Simplified, we show you how to use a D.E.P.S. Chart, that's a specific type of timeline, to review, summarize, and analyze your existing research for one person/problem. Brick Wall Simplified was designed to minimize the textual summarizing needed while still helping us see which source provided every piece of information. It should also allow the hobbyist to start asking him or herself the questions a professional asks when reviewing information.

Get the free checklist of these steps in The Occasional Genealogist Resource Library. Sign up for the Library, here.

More Reason to Prep Your Family History Before Hiring

Money is the big reason you need to perform the three main tasks before hiring a professional. There's another reason to do these that I've only briefly alluded to.

When you're going to hire a professional, narrowing your project, gathering and reviewing your existing research, and summarizing saves money/gets you better results. When you do all of these actions, you may even make discoveries that make it unnecessary to hire a professional or you can hire them for a different project.

Brick Wall Simplified was designed to help you bust your own brick wall. In other words, it's so you can be your own professional. But, if you still need help, it gets everything organized so you can hire us or another professional and get the best results possible.

How We Can Help

Through The Occasional Genealogist LLC, we now offer two options for paid 1:1 help. We also offer a variety of educational options both free and paid, including the free posts on this blog.

Genealogy Research Project

We offer 1:1 research projects on select U.S. topics starting at $3000 plus expenses. We have very limited availability for these so you should expect at least a month before your project can be started and six-months for completion (this mainly allows time for obtaining offline records). Use the contact button in the top menu to contact us for more details.

Genealogy Coaching

Part of our limited availability for research projects is our new coaching service. This is a more affordable option that lets you keep all the fun of research while still getting a helping hand.

Our coaching service is a remote/written coaching as opposed to live/virtual coaching. You provide digital material which your coach reviews on their schedule and writes a response to. You review their suggestions and research/update your information, providing the updates within a month of receiving each coaching report. This means there are no scheduling issues or problems due to different time zones!

There are two options for this depending on how much prep work you do to your research.

High-touch (you did minimal prep)

$550 for four coaching sessions. Your coach creates and updates your D.E.P.S. Chart (see "Simplified Coaching" below for more about the D.E.P.S. Chart). This option takes six months to complete from the time you submit your information, one coaching session a month plus time for your coach to create your D.E.P.S. Chart and if needed, update it as you progress.

Simplified Coaching

$350, five coaching sessions plus lifetime access to our online course, Brick Wall Simplified. To take advantage of this lower cost option, you'll need to create and update a D.E.P.S. Chart to go with your other research information. Our online course, Brick Wall Simplified, walks you through how we want this done so you can maximize the preparation of your project. This option includes one coaching session a month from the time you submit your D.E.P.S. Chart and other project information.

You can learn more details about our coaching service, here. [this link has temporarily been deactivated as we are currently at capacity with our coaching service. If you are interested in it, you can use the contact link in the top menu to email us and let us know you are interested and we'll let you know when we are accepting new coaching applicants.]

Get the free checklist of these steps in The Occasional Genealogist Resource Library. Sign up for the Library, here.