Recently, I’ve become more attuned to the discussions going on around me about how, why and what one’s expectations should be about ‘going pro’. Most people assume (understandably, I think) that being a ‘professional genealogist’ means getting paid to do research. But as Elissa Scalise Powell, CG, pointed out in the APG Professional Management Conference (PMC) seminar ‘Get Paid for your Passion: Becoming a Professional Genealogist’ from Sept. 2, 2009 (available here – and recommended!), the definition of professional means different things to different people. To summarize a bit of Ms. Powell’s excellent seminar, being a professional could mean someone who takes money for research, but it could also be someone who is certified or has other credentials, one who has been published, or even who simply volunteers, but adheres to certain industry standards. Could it even be one who simply advertises, has a degree in family history, or dresses well? Or is it all of those? it could be any or all, of course. And one doesn’t even have to be an actual researcher – one might be a lecturer, teacher, librarian, speaker and so on.
Since my current profession (not genealogy!) involves teaching diverse populations of students, I am always reluctant to label anything or anyone. There’s too many reasons to avoid it. But I find that, for my own sake, I need a more specific definition of going pro. Otherwise, what exactly am I striving for when I say I aspire to become a professional genealogist? Thus far, I’ve adopted the term I’ve found mentioned elsewhere about genealogists seeking to move from hobbyist to professional: transitional genealogist. And yet, the term ‘transitional’ itself seems inadequate at times. What are we transitioning from and to? Not getting paid to getting paid? Non-certification to certification? Not following standards to following standards? It could be any or all of these, I think, but the term is broad enough that the wiggle room can be confusing to me. I know I would like to think I’ve never been unprofessional in the standards I follow, but that’s pure wishful thinking. In fact, there are likely some ‘hobbyists’ out there that adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standard and follow guidelines stricter than someone who just hangs out a shingle advertising research services only weeks or months after discovering genealogy existed. I’m not making any assumptions about any particular group because I don’t want to. I also really can’t. It’s all just too nebulous.
In the end, I realized that ‘going pro’ in genealogy will always mean many things to many people. I need to define it for myself. So, after some thought, I decided that I believe going pro means having confidence and expertise in an area of research that would allow me to take on certain projects knowing that I can do my very best and not feel as though I’m missing any key, relevant sources or approaches to a research problem. I have sufficient hours researching in that area (be it geographic, chronological, ethnic, etc.) that I feel capable therein. I also have the skills to sufficiently plan a research project, fulfill it and write it up as a report, an article, or something else that is solid enough other genealogists would look at it and nod in approval at the conclusions I made and the sources I cited.
But how many hours is ‘sufficient’? How do I know I’ve used all the resources? How do I know I approached the citations correctly? How do I know other genealogists regard my work as credible?
Some of that, like citations and familiarity with sources, comes with practice and experience, both of which I’m working on. As for the others, it’s harder to know, but that’s why APG, BCG and ICAPGEN exist, to provide that outside review and consideration. I know many genealogists may be excellent and not accredited, but I’ve decided to seek certification for my own peace of mind and marketability. Does that mean a certification equates to ‘professionalism’? No. But it’s the standard I’ve chosen to judge myself. Everyone has their own way of judging their expertise, and I suppose I’ve decided I want an external check on my own judgment.
So what does ‘professional’ mean to you? I’d love to hear other opinions.
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