12 January 2016

Becoming a Genetic Genealogist

Disclaimer: As the author, course coordinator, and/or speaker, I have a financial interest in some of the educational opportunities listed below.

How does one become a genetic genealogist? The same way one becomes a good genealogist or good at anything else - study and practice, study and practice, study and practice.

New York Public Library, "Typical Study Room, Typing Room #220," digital image, Flickr Creative Commons (www.flickr.com : accessed 5 December 2011); New York Public Library Visual Materials / Lantern Slides / Research Library / Typing.

There is no one path to becoming a good genealogist. There is no one path to becoming a good genetic genealogist. But no matter the path one takes, no matter the subject matter, practicing what is learned leads to proficiency and expertise.

PublicDomainPictures, https://pixabay.com/, CC0 Public Domain License.

For those who are self-learners, books and articles may provide the knowledge. For those who learn better in a classroom environment, courses are available, online and at institutes. Conference and society meeting presentations are a good starting point to see if you have an interest in a subject, but concentrated study and practical experience is required to become a proficient practitioner.

The following lists some resources to get started. For all of the columns and blogs, start reading with the earliest articles. Once you understand the basic information you can then more easily grasp the intermediate and advanced concepts covered in more recent articles.

At the beginner level, check these resources ...

National Genealogical Society, Continuing Genealogical Studies, Screen Shot

  1. National Genealogical Society, NGS Magazine "Genetic Genealogy Journey" column. I have been writing this column since October 2013. All articles are available in the members-only section of the NGS website (http://ngsgenealogy.org/). Older articles are available on my website (http://debbiewayne.com/presentations/gatagacc_biblio.php).
  2. National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Theme Issue on Genetics and Genealogy. Vol. 93 (December 2005).
  3. Genetic Genealogy, the Basics. National Genealogical Society. Continuing Genealogical Studies. http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/CGS.
  4. Bettinger, Blaine. I Have the Results of My Genetic Genealogy Test, Now What? Self-published, 2008. Current v2.1 version. Family Tree DNA. http://www.familytreedna.com/pdf-docs/Interpreting-Genetic-Genealogy-Results_web_optimized.pdf.
  5. Bettinger, Blaine. The Genetic Genealogist. http://www.thegeneticgenealogist.com/.
  6. Hill, Richard. Guide to DNA Testing. n.p.: Atrax LLC, 2014. http://www.dna-testing-adviser.com/DNA-Testing-Guide.html.
  7. Hill, Richard. Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA. n.p.: self-published, 2012.
  8. Moore, CeCe. Your Genetic Genealogist. http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com.
  9. Kennett, Debbie. DNA and Social Networking: A Guide to Genealogy in the Twenty-first Century. Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press, 2011.
  10. Russell, Judy G. The Legal Genealogist. http://www.legalgenealogist.com/.
  11. Shawker, Thomas. Unlocking Your Genetic History. Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 2004. This older book covers the basics on genetics, Y-DNA and mtDNA, but not the latest tests or in-depth atDNA.
  12. Smolenyak, Megan Smolenyak and Ann Turner. Trace Your Roots with DNA. Emmaus, Penn.: Rodale Press, 2004. This older book covers the basics on genetics, Y-DNA and mtDNA, but not the latest tests or in-depth atDNA.
  13. Wayne, Debbie Parker. Deb's Delvings Blog. http://debsdelvings.blogspot.com/.
  14. Wheaton, Kelly. Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy. https://sites.google.com/site/wheatonsurname/beginners-guide-to-genetic-genealogy.
  15. DNA-Newbie Yahoo Forum. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DNA-NEWBIE/.
  16. Practical Genetic Genealogy. Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP). A full week of practical, hands-on experience analyzing and correlating DNA test results using the latest tools and techniques.
  17. Getting Started with Genetic Genealogy. Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG). A full week of practical, hands-on experience analyzing and correlating DNA test results using the latest tools and techniques.
  18. Genetic Genealogy Standards Committee. Genetic Genealogy Standards http://www.geneticgenealogystandards.com/.
  19. Your local and regional libraries and special interest groups at societies for DNA-related offerings.

As you read, practice what you learn using the DNA test results of your own family. After studying the items above, you should be able to determine which are your closest DNA matches and compare family trees looking for common ancestors. You should be able to compare the STR values of Y-DNA testers to determine if testers likely have a common ancestor or not. You should be able to determine how closely two mtDNA or Y-DNA testers match each other. You should be able to determine how closely atDNA testers may be related, as in first to second cousins, second to fourth cousins, distant cousins, etc.

Read articles in scholarly journals that incorporate DNA analysis into genealogical research. Recent ones in the NGS quarterly include:
  1. Hollister, Morna Lahnice. "Goggins and Goggans of South Carolina: DNA Helps Document the Basis of an Emancipated Family's Surname." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 102 (September 2014): 165-176.
  2. Jones, Thomas W. "Too Few Sources to Solve a Family Mystery? Some Greenfields in Central and Western New York." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 103 (June 2015): 85-103.
  3. Mills, Elizabeth Shown. "Testing the FAN Principle against DNA: Zilphy (Watts) Price Cooksey Cooksey of Georgia and Mississippi." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 102 (June 2014): 129-152.
The articles above are available in the members-only section of the NGS website (http://ngsgenealogy.org/).

Family Tree DNA Chromosome Browser Display, Screen Shot

As your skills increase, check these resources ...
  1. More advanced articles on the blogs listed above.
  2. Genetic Genealogy, Autosomal DNA. National Genealogical Society. Continuing Genealogical Studies. http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/CGS.
  3. Aulicino, Emily D. Genetic Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond. Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2013.
  4. Bartlett, Jim. Segment-ology. http://segmentology.org/.
  5. Christmas, Shannon. Through the Trees. http://throughthetreesblog.tumblr.com/.
  6. Dowell, Dave. Dr D Digs Up Ancestors. http://blog.ddowell.com/.
  7. Estes, Roberta. DNAeXplained - Genetic Genealogy. http://dna-explained.com/.
  8. Institute for Genetic Genealogy. http://i4gg.org/. Video recordings of conference sessions are available to view online at a very reasonable price.
  9. Owston, Jim. The Lineal Arboretum. http://linealarboretum.blogspot.com/.
  10. Perkins, Steve. On-line Journal of Genetic Genealogy. http://jgg-online.blogspot.com/.
  11. Journal of Genetic Genealogy (JOGG). http://www.jogg.info/.
  12. Genetics And Us. http://www.geneticsand.us/.
  13. Genealogy DNA List on RootsWeb. http://lists.rootsweb.com/index/other/DNA/GENEALOGY-DNA.html.
  14. Autosomal DNA List on RootsWeb. http://lists.rootsweb.ancestry.com/index/other/DNA/AUTOSOMAL-DNA.html.
  15. Advanced Genetic Genealogy. Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP).
  16. Genetic Genealogy Tools and Techniques. Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR).
  17. Advanced DNA Analysis Techniques For Genealogical Research. Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG).
  18. DNAadoption courses. http://dnaadoption.com/index.php?page=online-classes/. Several courses are offered on atDNA and Y-DNA with others to be added in the future.
  19. Become a project administrator or assistant administrator for a DNA project - Y-DNA, mtDNA, atDNA, regional, or a haplogroup project. This will expose you to situations beyond those seen in your own family.
Genetic genealogy courses are also offered by other groups such as Family Tree University (https://www.familytreeuniversity.com/), Virtual Institute of Genealogical Research (http://vigrgenealogy.com/), and University of Strathclyde (http://www.strath.ac.uk/).

Continue practicing newly learned techniques using the DNA test results of your own family and consenting project members. Incorporate segment analysis and triangulation of segments. Try to determine which DNA segments were inherited from which ancestors when you have several testers with robust, accurate, and complete trees who share overlapping DNA segments. Start with segments larger than 10cM or so; smaller segments are difficult to confirm and can mislead novices. Test out standalone tools and third-party websites discussed in the books and articles.

Write up your findings incorporating both documentary research and the DNA results. A skilled genetic genealogist must also be a skilled genealogist. Credible conclusions are reached by correlating DNA evidence and documentary evidence. DNA is one more tool in the toolbox of a good genealogist. In the same way you learned to analyze tax roll details and odd phrases in probate or deed records, you must learn the oddities of genetic evidence. Random recombination and inheritance patterns can complicate analysis because there are multiple scenarios by which specific test results could have occurred. Statistical probabilities play a role.

Genetic Genealogy Kit, Screen Shot

Ask skilled friends to critique your writing, giving constructive feedback, good and bad. When you feel confident in your writing submit the article to a peer-reviewed journal for publication.

Genetic genealogy is a complex subject, but if you can learn to become a good genealogical researcher you should be able to become a good genetic genealogist. You must be willing to invest the time into learning the concepts and analysis techniques that are unique to genetics and practicing the techniques to become proficient in multiple situations.

When "random" factors are involved, you can seldom ever use the words always or never. You must have a deep understanding of concepts to be able to judge the likelihood of an event.

To cite this blog post:
Debbie Parker Wayne, "Becoming a Genetic Genealogist," Deb's Delvings Blog, posted 12 January 2016 (http://debsdelvings.blogspot.com/ : accessed [date]).

© 2016, Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, CGL, All Rights Reserved


  1. Thanks, Deb. Great Resources! I have plowed my way through many of them and found several in this post to add to my list. Getting there...

  2. You are welcome, Eileen. I'm glad to know this list is useful. There is always something new to add to the list so that there is always something new to learn. That is one of the things I like most about genetic genealogy.

  3. Great List Deb, I am working my way through these.

    1. It does take a while, doesn't it? Good luck and I am glad this helps.

  4. I just read your "What We Don't Know" article in the latest issue of NGS's Magazine. I'm glad to see more pieces on genetic genealogy like yours in genealogy mainstream. I hope your mantra "More data is better" resonates with those who have yet to test (what are they waiting for?!).

    1. Thanks, Family Sleuther. It is amazing how in the last two to three years genetic genealogy has become part of "normal" research. We genetic genealogists are no longer those "weird people who study DNA." I think we have to make sure everyone understands the importance of "more data" when incorporating DNA.