As I’ve been researching my family’s genealogy and writing here about genealogy, I’ve often felt like I should have a more formal education. But do I really need a degree? I talked to Breanne, who is getting a formal genealogy education and already knows a ton more than I do.
Genealogy education can be obtained online or in person (via conferences, books, libraries, classes, and formal degrees). The amount of genealogical education needed will depend on one’s goals as a genealogist. Most hobbyists learn as they go, while professionals may opt for formal degrees.
In other words, there’s no one right path. But to figure out which path you should take, keep reading!
What Education is Needed to Become a Genealogist?
The fact that you’re interested in studying genealogy or tracing your family’s lines of descent qualifies you as a genealogist, no matter your current level of education. That’s according to multiple dictionaries – like the Merriam-Webster.
In other words, just by reading this, you can call yourself a genealogist – because you’re here. Being here means you’re pretty interested in figuring out more about your family and family history. That makes you and me and Breanne (with her university-level education and upcoming degree) all genealogists.
Sure, we’re all on different levels. That’s okay. Some of us are hobbyists while others are professionals and others have degrees in history and library sciences.
Now, just because we are genealogists doesn’t mean we don’t need any education. In fact, we’re still going to need at least a basic understanding of genealogy and how to do it. But… how much education do we need as a genealogist?
How Much Education Do I Need as a Genealogist?
Well, it depends. As a genealogist, you can obtain as much or as little education as you want, depending on your goals.
- Do you want to do genealogy for yourself? You’ll probably want to consider yourself a hobbyist genealogist.
- Do you want to help others do their genealogy? You may want to get more in-depth training and a certificate.
- Or do you want to make genealogy your profession? You’ll probably want a formal degree and a certificate.
|Level||Goal||Education Level Needed|
|Hobbyist Genealogist (Beginner)||Doing genealogy for yourself and your family.||Learn at your own pace and as you go.|
|Hobbyist Genealogist (Intermediate to Advanced)||Doing genealogy for yourself, and your family, and occasionally helping others.||Learn at your own pace and actively seek out education.|
|Professional Hobbyist (no certificate or degree yet)||Doing genealogy for yourself, and your family, and helping others on a regular basis.||Seeks out education and might be working towards a degree and certification.|
|Board Certified/ Professional Genealogist||Doing genealogy for others (paid) as part of their career.||Is a board-certified and recognized genealogist, accredited by either (or both) the Board for Certification or ICAPGen.|
|Professional (with a degree and board certification)||Doing genealogy for others (paid) and/or working for a company, library, or archive.||Bachelor’s and/or Master’s Degree with certificates/recognition from the Board for Certification or ICAPGen.|
No matter which level of genealogist you want to be, much of your education will come by learning as you go – an on-the-genealogy-hunt style education, if you will.
My friend Breanne, for example, has been doing genealogy for years. The more she does, the more she wants to be able to help others. And so she’s getting more formal education than she’s already obtained. You can read more about her journey (and her goals) here.
For example, after you’ve learned a few basic steps to get started on your family history and genealogy research, you’ll quickly discover a few things you need to look up in order to find the information you need.
For me, I discovered that quite a bit of my genealogy had been done, but there were very few references verifying that the information was correct or true. So I learned how to look up old newspapers to find birth, marriage, and death announcements. I also found some pretty cool stories about my ancestors that way.
I learned how to do this by taking a free, multi-week course led by another genealogist at church and by getting really good at Googling things.
I don’t know what level of education that particular genealogist has, but she’s awesome. She’s definitely done a lot of research on her own – and knows her stuff. So to me, in this instance, I don’t need her to have a degree. I just needed her to show me what she’d learned.
So as you’re researching genealogy, taking online or in-person courses, watching webinars, getting help from staff at the family history library, attending conferences, reading books and journals, know this: you are expanding your education as a genealogist.
Then, no matter your current level as a genealogist, keep learning by doing and study.
Then, if you’d like to, you can go get a formal education and background in genealogy and/or a degree. Doing so isn’t required unless you want to become a career genealogist or work for a genealogy company. But it can be a great tool to have if you want to help others do their genealogy. We’ll talk about that later.
But first, let’s talk about where we can go to get more information fast – on a more basic to intermediate level.
Where Can I Go to Get a Basic or Intermediate Level Genealogy Education?
If you’re looking to get your metaphorical feet wet in genealogy (and not necessarily going pro) here is a list of educational opportunities to get you started.
What’s awesome is that the four most popular genealogy websites all have educational resources to teach you how to use their sites. You can learn a lot about the research process as you learn to use the site.
Breanne and I both prefer FamilySearch for those who are starting out in genealogy. Not only is it free, but they also have a lot of free-to-the-public (no login required) information about the research process, how to do research on particular regions of the world, etc.
The downside to each of these four main websites is that they tend to be specific to their own way of doing things. I mean, Ancestry isn’t going to show you how to use Family Search (and vice versa). They do show you some good information, though, if you’re willing to dig.
Or, if you’d rather us sift through it all for you, make sure you’re bookmarking this website. Let us be your genealogy pals – and help guide you through all of it.
Breanne’s favorite vote goes to webinars – or mini-classes offered online that can be watched live or pre-recorded (and played back on your own time afterward).
- GeneaWebinars This site is a collaboration, one site with a calendar with links to webinars all over the web, hosted by DearMYRTLE (a popular genealogy guru).
- BYU Family History Library-frequently offers classes/webinars, archives of these can be found on their YouTube channel.
- Utah Genealogical Society Virtual Chapter offers a free monthly webinar to the public, members can watch archived past webinars.
- The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah offers on-site classes and webinars. Past webinars are available for free.
- BYU Independent Study courses – free online classes that can be completed at your own pace.
- Legacy Family Tree Webinars – more webinars, some are free, many are paid.
Podcasts, or recorded radio or talk-show style soundbites, are a great way to keep up on the latest in genealogy news, and education and hear some really interesting stories. They can also be a great way to get ideas of things to learn/try in your own learning/research. Many podcasts are free, while some others may have an associated membership fee.
Here are a few to get you started:
Podcasts are a great way to listen and get more familiar with the lingo, the terminology, and broad exposure to the field. You can read more about the best genealogy podcasts here.
Conferences can be amazing. And, if you can’t make it in person, a lot of these have live stream options. Many of these may cost money to attend or to get access to the most current workshops.
- RootsTech (Salt Lake and London) is the largest conference. It’s held in Salt Lake in Feb or March, while the London conference is in October. You can attend, watch a live stream during the conference, and/or watch archived recordings of past Rootstech keynotes and classes.
- National Genealogical Society (NGS) – this conference is usually held in May. The location changes every year.
- Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) – this conference is usually held in August or September. Important note: the FGS and NGS are consolidating into one organization.
- BYU Conference for Genealogy and Family History – held at the end of July on campus or available online.
- Many more, depending on research, specialty, and/or region.
Thinking about attending RootsTech in Salt Lake City? Keep an eye out for me and Breanne – we hope to see you there!
- National Genealogical Society has a variety of free resources. As a paid member there are other classes, too.
- American Ancestors, hosted by the New England Historic Genealogical Society has a ton of educational resources.
- Be sure to check out your local genealogical society(s) as well as genealogy societies associated with the regions you are researching. They usually have information specific to related areas.
How to Become a Professional Genealogist
Once you’re ready to become a professional genealogist, there are several paths you can take to get there:
- Become a certified, professional genealogist without a degree.
- Become a certified, professional genealogist with a Bachelor’s and/or Master’s degree in a relevant field.
First, you can become an accredited (and professional) genealogist without a degree, current certificate, or formal education. This might be a great option if you want to do genealogy for others in a freelance setting.
The two main accrediting bodies (within the field of genealogy) offer certificates. You can reach their websites with these links:
- Board for Certification of Genealogists
- International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen)
In order to certify with either body, you will need to do some or all of the following steps:
- pass a test;
- provide a project or portfolio proving a certain level of understanding of genealogy;
- provide proof of hours of experience as a genealogist.
Each site has details on how to apply to become accredited by them. They’ve each also got:
- great resources that will prepare you for certification;
- study groups to help you through the process;
- resources that will help you keep your certificate current from now on.
Here’s exactly what each requires:
|Big project (portfolio)||Has different levels of certification and associated portfolio|
|Proof of hours of experience||Tests, both written or oral|
The great thing about this route to becoming a professional genealogist is that it doesn’t require formal education or a degree. And, it’s a great route to take if you’re going to be working on your own as a genealogist. It does, however, require a lot of work on your part – and going through the application process.
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To make the application process easier, make sure you’re using these amazingly valuable resources:
- Get the reference book “Professional Genealogy: a Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians” (click here to see availability and pricing on Amazon).
- Get the book, “Professional Genealogy: Preparation, Practice & Standards” (check the price and availability on Amazon by clicking here).
- Participate in a Professional Genealogist study group, like this one available via ProGen: https://www.progenstudy.org
To see what other genealogical study resources we use and recommend, click here.
If your goals are to work for a bigger company, archive, library, or to have more education, there is another route: getting a formal education and applicable degrees. If you do go this route, please note that this isn’t to skip the certificate; you’ll still want to get the board certification.
Getting the degree first should make certification easier, though, because you’ll have more education and experience in your genealogical belt.
Where Can I Go to Get a Formal, University Level Genealogy Education?
While I took a couple of introductory genealogy classes during my years at Brigham Young University, I didn’t minor in it – nor did I look up the requirements to graduate with a dedicated degree in genealogy. However, I did talk to Breanne about options she’s researched and is following.
While there are a few dedicated genealogist programs, you don’t have to take that path. Instead, you could get a relevant degree – one in English, History, Library Science, or a relevant language. A degree in a relevant language could be especially helpful if you want to specialize as a genealogist for a country and/or time period.
And that’s just for a Bachelor’s degree – then you’ll also want to consider a Master’s degree, as that will make your resume more appealing to the big-name genealogist companies.
From there, you will more than likely also want to obtain a certificate from one of the two main accreditation boards. From the sounds of things, it’s almost unheard of for a genealogist to not get the certification – especially after obtaining so much extra secondary and post-secondary education!
Please refer back to the earlier section of this article on becoming a professional genealogist to read more about that board certification process.
Now let’s talk about where you can go to get genealogy/family history-specific certificates, courses, degrees, and programs.
University Level Genealogy Certificates and Courses
- Boston University
- Salt Lake Community College
- National Genealogical Society
- BYU Idaho online
- National Institute for Genealogical Studies
- Virtual Institute of Genealogical Research
- and more!
University Level Genealogy Degrees and Programs
- BYU-Idaho (associate’s degree)
- Scottish University of Strathclyde
Any of these options may work for you – especially since some of them are offered online. Pricing can vary, depending on the program and how it’s offered. No matter which you choose, though, they all have amazing opportunities for you to learn, grow, and study as a genealogist.
And really, that’s the key: because the field of genealogy is always evolving, it’s important that no matter what level you’re at that you keep learning more. So get out there and go enjoy doing some genealogy.