Sunday, 22 March 2015

Time for Formal Genealogy Education?

Once bitten by the genealogy bug many people want to enhance their knowledge and skills.  Education comes in many forms, including guide books, webinars, podcasts, magazines, lectures, workshops, conferences, fairs, and informal and formal courses.  For those who want recognition of their achievement, academic credit or are preparing for a career in genealogical research, how do you compare educational opportunities?

I will restrict the comparison to a selection of current offerings in the UK and USA.  Education systems differ between countries, but I am going to assume that postgraduate courses are more advanced and intensive than undergraduate courses.  Academic awards of degree, diploma and certificate qualifications require an extended duration of study of a range of topics.  Component parts of academic qualifications are also offered as stand-alone courses or modules.  Courses with academic credit involve assessment of the knowledge and research skills gained.

It is harder to compare courses without academic credit.  Recognition of participation may be given in the form of an informal certificate.  Course descriptions such as beginners, intermediate and advanced give an indication of the level of study, but may not have been benchmarked against academic standards.  Typically non-credit courses are of short duration.  Continuing professional development (CPD) is a recognised method updating and acquiring skills in many professions.  Non-credit courses can be part of CPD.

The total number of hours of study can be compared between credit and non-credit courses.

Academic Qualifications

Two UK universities offer postgraduate programs culminating in Masters degrees.  The University of Strathclyde program in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies progresses through the postgraduate certificate and diploma and MSc.  The University of Dundee program in Family and Local History also progresses through postgraduate certificate and diploma to MLitt.  Each of the phases are rated at 600 hours of study, so a Masters degree totals 1800 hours.

Though not a university, the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS) offers a Certificate, Higher Certificate, Diploma, and Licentiateship in Genealogy.  The Higher Certificate is at a similar level to the Strathclyde University Postgraduate Certificate, indicated by the two institution's reciprocal entrance requirements.

In the UK, there are no undergraduate (bachelor level) degrees in genealogy.  In contrast, in the USA there is an undergraduate degree, but no postgraduate qualifications in genealogy.  Brigham Young University offers Bachelor degrees with a major or minor in Genealogy-Family History, and an undergraduate Certificate.  By my calculation, the major equates to 1833-3080 hours of study, a little less than the 3600 hours of a typical UK Bachelors degree.  The minor equates to 792-960 hours and the certificate to 600-720 hours.  The degree hours include some non-genealogical courses required to meet the university's broader education remit.

Courses without Academic Credit

Universities are not the only institutions offering genealogical education, and some universities offer  courses without academic credit.

In the USA, 5 day residential institutes, Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR), Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP), and Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) offer mostly intermediate and advanced courses in methodology and specialist topics that equate to 40-50 hours of study.  The Virtual Institute of Genealogical Research offers shorter 2 day courses.  The residential institute format is well regarded, so this year it crosses the pond with the University of Strathclyde's introduction of the Summer Institute of Genealogical Studies (SIGS).  It is aimed at professional genealogists and intermediate to advanced level hobby level genealogists.

Family History Skills & Strategies, presented by Pharos tutors and the Society of Genealogists, may be taken with assessments earning the student a certificate, which is not currently recognised by other institutions. It is comprised of 10 courses, rated at UK  'A’ level or first-year undergraduate level, that total 168-210 study hours.

Non-academic credit courses include the Certificate in Genealogy and Family History from the University of Washington, which represents 90 hours of study, and  the Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University, which I estimate represents 75 hours of study.

What education do you expect a professional genealogist to have?

What level of genealogy education do you, as a member of the public, expect a professional genealogist to have attained?  Where would you draw the line in this list:
  • Masters degree 
  • Postgraduate diploma
  • Postgraduate certificate
  • Bachelors degree
  • Non-credit certificate
  • no formal courses, but researched own family

Would you hire people with different levels of expertise for simple and complex work?

Is there a minimum number of study hours needed before a person can be considered a competent genealogist?

Doing genealogy for money is unregulated, so anyone can set up a genealogical research  business.  The debate about what makes a professional genealogist is ongoing and at times heated, but few would deny that genealogical education is a significant component.  Following a symposium, The Future of Professional Genealogy? last August, a Register of Qualified Genealogists has been proposed.  Input on public expectations and preferences will help make the register more useful for those seeking professional help.  So, please contribute your answers to the questions above.


  1. This is the wrong question. A Competent Genealogist should be required to demonstrate skills and values which (a) cannot be learnt in the classroom and (b) cannot be tested in an examination. Study alone does not make a competent genealogist.
    In my opinion a Framework of Professional Competence has three strands
    (1) Core Knowledge: this can be obtained in a classroom, and can also be gained through experience; it is the subject marterial, the sources available, the appropriate research methods, the methods of evaluating evidence, the appropriate record keeping, etc:
    (2) Area of Activity: knowledge of this can be obtained in the classroom, but for a professional, engagement with it needs to have been demonstrated in a practical environment: it is the skillful use of the proper methodology, the skillful use of the Proof Standard, etc; it is engagement with the subject through publication and continuing professional development:
    (3) Professional Values: This can only be demonstrated through practice: it is the respect for accuracy, truth, honesty; it is the respect for others, etc.
    My point is that for a person to call themselves a professional and for them to be recognized as such within the community, they *must* demonstrate them and *must* be seen to demonstrate them. Examination alone at graduate or post graduate level does not do this.

  2. No comments here yet, but there has been some discussion over of the Genealogy Do-Over Facebook page at

    which includes some extra educational resources and an answer to my questions from Bob Hunter:

    Sue I have tried to post comments on your blog a couple of times without success, but I think I answered two of your questions in my comment above.
    What education do you expect a professional genealogist to have? and
    Is there a minimum number of study hours needed before a person can be considered a competent genealogist?
    These are basically the same question, and my answer is that I do not expect a professional Genealogist to have any formal genealogical education, but I do expect (and would only employ) a genealogist who had a recognized standing in the community. As I have said I don't think a training course (even if it is at Masters Degree level) is sufficient evidence of engagement with the desired professional standards.
    Your third question: Would you hire people with different levels of expertise for simple and complex work? Quite probably I would, *but* there is a big corollary to this statement: How am I, as a layman with no real experience to know if my "work" is simple or complex? This is where professional standards come in because as a professional it is for the Genealogist to advise the client that they are not capable of the task requested.

  3. Nice review of the various programs. The Boston University Research Certificate course has been independently evaluated as a 3-credit graduate school level course. It offers at least 105 hours of instruction and students report spending 20 to 40 hours per week for each of the 15 weeks of the semester-long course. It is rigorous and aimed at a high-intermediate or advanced level.

    There is a 4-week "Essentials" course offered through Boston University which acquaints students with online learning and the essential concepts needed for the certificate course. It is highly recommended to take it before the 15-week course.

    No matter what educational venue you take there are options for geography, time, and finances. Some of the lower cost programs, such as are just as helpful as other programs in terms of gaining needed knowledge. It all depends on what your goal is and your personal situation.

    Best wishes,


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World Wide Genealogy Team