Recently a couple of people have asked for my advice on becoming a Professional genealogist. The answers are not short and simple, as many things need to be taken into consideration. 

Being a Professional Genealogist

I am sure that many professional genealogists will agree that although the work is very interesting, it is not as easy as it appears, and many cannot rely on it as a sole source of income.  Many professional genealogists are asked to do the research because the amateur researcher cannot find the records they are looking for.

Experience

As with any profession, experience is a key feature to success.  Hiring a professional genealogist can be very expensive, so would you trust your hard earned cash to someone who has only ever researched their own family history, and perhaps only for a couple of years?

Before becoming a professional genealogist you must gain some experience in researching trees for other people, even if you have been researching your own tree for over 10 years.  Different trees bring different problems to solve, and you need to know how to approach each one.

The easiest ways to gain experience is to volunteer to do family history research for your friends and extended family. You could even do it as a special birthday or Christmas present for them.

Joining your local family history society is another good route to gaining experience.  Many of them run workshops to help others, and I am sure they would welcome interested volunteers to help out.

You could also join any of the genealogy forums.  This is a place where many people ask for help, and most are not open to professionals asking for payment.  This would give you experience in a range of situations, and give you the opportunity to look up records for other people in your local archive centre.

Education.

Some professionals believe you only need experience, but I doubt that any have not done any form of training, albeit, casually.  In my mind education is as vital as experience, and the two should not be separated.

Even if you are experienced in doing your own research, courses and presentations can help us all learn more about what is available, especially as new records become available. Family History groups, societies and archive centres usually offer short courses, often based on one specific topic.  Genealogy websites including well known ones such as Ancestry, and Find My Past, often have webinars available for you to watch, as do organisations such as The National Archives who also have a huge amount of very informative research guides.

It is always worth going to these to learn new skills such as reading old handwriting (palaeography) and basic Latin, or to learn about new records such as the 1939 Register when that was first released.

There are many institutions that offer online genealogy courses, and some may suit you better than others. Personally I would recommend taking a higher level qualification course such as those offered by the Universities of Dundee or Strathclyde or the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies.  These courses all include a variety of different topics, record types, and gives you experience and training in producing professional reports.

You cannot be expected to learn or even remember everything, so frequent updating of your skills and knowledge will help you to be a better researcher.

Memberships for the Professional Genealogist .

You will need a County Archive Research Network (CARN) card to gain entry to the reading rooms of County archives.  This will allow you to access any original documents you need to view.  The National Archives in Kew have their own reader’s card which you must apply for before you can access their search rooms.

There are a small number of Professional membership organisations of genealogists, and I would recommend you belong to at least one.  The main ones for the UK are:

All of these associations require fulfilling their membership criteria, adherence to their Codes of Practise, and regularly updating your skills and knowledge.

Subscriptions

Website subscriptions have become a vital part of the tools a professional genealogist uses.  Always read the Terms and Conditions though as not all of them allow you to use their websites for professional work.  Read my blog about this.

Be aware that you cannot and should not reply on one website.  A variety of free and subscriptions site will help you with or research, alongside the records held by archive offices, most of which are not available online.

Business Costs

Setting up a new business requires a variety of costs and things you must do.  The first is to set yourself up as a sole trader or business with the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) tax office.  Failure to do so could result in criminal charges for tax avoidance.  You will also need to complete a self-assessment tax form every year.

The best way to help you keep track of your expenses is to create a spreadsheet for all of your outgoings and earnings. I have created a guide on how to set up a spreadsheet, which can be obtained here: http://genbiz.solutions/genbiz-solutions-genealogy-business-strategy-guides/tips-tracking-income-expenses/

One area which is not an obvious part of being self-employed, but is just as vital, is registering for data protection with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).  This is a small cost but vital for anyone who keeps clients details (even just an email address) on a computer.

Any business these days, especially those without a shop front, needs to advertise on the internet. The most expensive part of this is getting a well-designed website, a dedicated email address (free email addresses are ok but would you trust a business with a free Gmail account  rather than one with their business name), and web space.   Advertising your business is another cost, but you can at least choose which of the many options suits your budget.

I would also recommend you get a dedicated phone (mobile or landline), so you do not get business calls out of hours.  When I first set up my business I made the mistake of using my home phone number on my business cards, only to receive a telephone call from a client at 5.30 in the morning – just before he went to work!  With a dedicated mobile phone I can now switch it off at the end of the working day.

Specialise

Genealogy is now big business and you will find you have lots of competitors for the work you are looking for – from professionals and amateurs alike.  To stand out from the crowd you really need to specialise in one or two areas be it geographical or in a subject area or time period.  Are there many professionals in your county or local area? Can you specialise in Military or Medieval history?

Your Product.

Regardless of what type of business you run, you need to decide on the product(s) you are offering, how they are presented and how much you are charging. The price needs to be right for your customer, too cheap or too expensive and result in potential clients going elsewhere.

 

If all of this has not put you off becoming a professional genealogist, I wish you the very best of luck and hope we will meet through on of the membership associations.