Turning your genealogy hobby into a career

Every professional genealogist I have ever met started out by researching their own family. I did. The most difficult part of becoming a professional is the transition – making the decision to turn your beloved hobby into a career.

Last week, I read an absolutely enlightening article about this very subject on the American Express Open Forum website. This website is highly recommended for all those considering entering the world of small business. In “4 Questions To Ask Before Turning A Hobby Into Your Career,” Rebecca Thebault considers some of the factors that should affect your decision. Ms. Thebault describes her transition from investment banking into a career as the owner of a bakery–something she loved to do!

Ms. Thebault recommends the following four questions:

“1. Are you realistic about what you’ll gain?”

Ms. Thebault recounts the story of returning to work days–not weeks or months–after delivering a child. I often joke about never sleeping. (Well, it’s kind of a joke.) Being “your own boss” is not easy. It is often not very fun. And you have to make all of the hard decisions yourself. As a small business owner, you will be 100% responsible for the success or failure of your business.

Another recommendation Ms. Thebault makes under this heading is to “Be realistic about how much time it will take to achieve your goals.” When I made the transition into the career as a full-time professional genealogist, I had enough money saved to pay my bills for several months. I barely made it. It is vital that you keep in mind just how long it may be before your business can support your goals.

I would also add that you have to think about what you’ll lose. I live 20 minutes from the beach, and though my wife and daughter go swimming at least once or twice a week in the summer months, I have not been swimming in over five years. I miss birthday parties, barbecues, and other social events on a regular basis. My top priority is keeping the business afloat, not having fun.

“2. Are you ready to start at the bottom?”

“You may be extremely good at your hobby, but when people start paying you for it, you’re subject to a new set of standards,” Ms. Thebault writes. This is an important distinction.

You may be great at researching your own family, but can you do the same thing when you no longer have access to the same “family knowledge” of recurring given names, oral history, photo albums, and “stuff Grandma told you”?

Do you know about the Genealogical Proof Standard and other accepted genealogical research standards?

Do you already know how to write a professional research report of your findings?

Create an educational plan. It is important that you continue to raise your own standards up to that of other professionals. This is done through continuous education.

You will want to join the Association of Professional Genealogists. You may also want to consider accreditation through ICAPGen or certification through the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

When you first begin to take clients, no one will know who you are. You will not have a reputation. It is your responsibility to change these facts.

“3. Do you really want your hobby to become your job?”

Ms. Thebault notes, “Hobbies are typically things you enjoy as a distraction from work, so what happens when your hobby is work? Will it make you enjoy your work more or your hobby less? Chances are it will lead to a little bit of both.” I couldn’t say it any better.

I must also add that I no longer have the time for a hobby. All of my time is spent researching other people’s families, not my own. So if you are passionate about researching your own family, you may want to reconsider whether or not becoming a professional is right for you. I love the hunt, the problem-solving aspect of genealogy, even if that family is not my own. I would love to be able to apply my education and experience to my own family. And hopefully I will later be able to do so – I just don’t have the time now.

“4. Are you prepared for an emotional roller coaster?”

Running any small business will have its highs and lows — and the more you love what you are doing, the more emotional these highs and lows will be.

I would recommend that anyone thinking of turning your hobby into a career read this article, and then consider long and hard whether this is really what you want.

SOURCE: Rebecca Thebault, “4 Questions To Ask Before Turning A Hobby Into Your Career,” in American Express Open Forum blog, posted 18 August 2011 (http://www.openforum.com/ : accessed 2011).

10 thoughts on “Turning your genealogy hobby into a career

  1. I found my skills weren’t up to the task of doing paid research. After 15 years of researching my own family it was humbling, but at least I only disappointed a couple of people before I wised up. Now I can get the same joy from doing lookups and specific searches at the Library of Congress, the DAR and the National Archives.

    I still do genealogy copyediting—now there’s a specialty for you! All the conventions such as sequence of tenses, attribution, pronoun usage, specifying localities, naming relatives by full name or first name as appropriate come into play.

  2. These questions are excellent for the genealogical hobbyist who decides that this would be a great way to make a living. I think the majority of people that I run into who are at this point in life are still under the impression that all they have to do is research on line and type information into genealogical software. They have never been to a seminar, convention, or institute and normally do not belong to any societies, even NGS. These are not the people that post on the Transitional Genealogists or the Association of Professional Genealogist list forums. I don’t know which is worse. Having someone think you look at rocks all day or wear a white robe and work in a lab or hearing the reply, “Oh, I’ve done that. I’ve used Ancestry. I want to be a professional genealogist too.”

    This all seems very negative, but outside of an environment where beginning or intermediate genealogists are meeting (thus the people there are actually involved enough to put time into education) this question seems insulting. I get the feeling that what they want to hear is that all they have to do is take an online course and, zing, they have a new “fun” career.

    How do other people handle the man on the street who upon learning your true occupation, wants to know the fast and simple steps to fast-tracking to the same profession?

    • When I was working at the APG booth at the National Archives’ Genealogy Fair this past spring, a visitor asked what it takes to become a professional genealogist. That is, how long does it take and how much does it cost?

      I responded, “The rest of your life and most of your money.”

      I explained this comment to her further. No one knows everything, so a professional genealogist must constantly be involved with education. You must learn more about new record groups, new resources (both online and real-world), etc. You should attend conferences, institutes, and society meetings. Read new books, journals, and magazines. And since everything is always changing, this is a never-ending process.

  3. Great post Michael. True on all accounts! I find for myself I still need that part time job outside the house, and my genealogy work to make the balance in the bank at the end of the month positive. But, I love both jobs, so I feel blessed to have them. I hope your business continues to grow (quickly). You need to have some fun with your kids before they don’t want your company any more! 🙂

  4. Wonderful post, Michael. Lots of good things to chew on for me. I’m aiming towards becoming a professional genealogist, but I have no idea if that ever means I’ll do it as a career or even take money for it. It’d be nice, but I have no illusions it’d ever be more than a part-time gig. I think, for me, the journey of learning and stretching my skills into new areas is what I enjoy, and I’m not in any rush to get somewhere, hang out a shingle or stamp myself ‘self-employed’. I just love this field and I love learning more. I’m content if it takes me years to even /consider/ doing it for money.

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