Are You Experienced

Are you a beginner at DNA?  Intermediate?  Advanced?  How can you tell?  It’s not like we’ve got a standardized test for genetic genealogy.

Perhaps we should have one.  We could call it the Genetic Analysis Competency Test, or GACT.  Get it?  If you don’t, you might be a beginner.1

Goldilocks, from “Fairy Tales”, 1918, compiled by Rose Allyn, Stanton and Van Vliet Company, p 73.

Or maybe I just tell bad jokes.

Now that online education is so widespread and accessible, knowing where you stand is important.  I’ve taught workshops where the biggest complaint was that the material was too advanced, followed closely by gripes that it wasn’t advanced enough.  In the same class!

Being able to gauge your experience level can help with this Goldilocks problem.  With a standard metric, you can better decide which lectures or courses best fit your needs and your budget.  And your instructors will be able to tailor their materials more precisely to their audiences.

So how do we gauge our skill levels?  After all, there’s no one bit of information you need to learn to go from beginner to intermediate nor a single skill you must master to jump from intermediate to advanced.  It’s a continuum.

Layer onto that the fact that genetic genealogy is still a rapidly developing field, and  there’s no one target we must hit.  An advanced person who walked away today would come back in 2 years as intermediate.  And if they left for 5 years they might well feel like a beginner.  That’s part of what makes genetic genealogy so exciting!

That’s why we can’t use a metric based on knowing A, B, and C.  In 5 years, A, B, and C might be outdated (Remember mirroring?) and the essential skills will be X, Y, and Z.

Broadly, a beginner is new to the field and spends most of their effort learning how to use DNA for genealogy.  An advanced person has mastered most of the methods and spends the bulk of their time applying their knowledge.  And intermediate is somewhere in the middle.

We can break this down further:  terminology, methods, databases, interpretation, third-party tools, ethics, and more.  Each of those can have beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels, as summarized in the table below.

Of course, very few people will fit tidily into just one column, perhaps only the absolute beginners and the most experienced among us.  Everyone else will tick boxes in two or three columns.  That’s okay.  This isn’t a pass-fail exercise; it’s meant to help you evaluate your own level so you can get the most out of your next learning experiences.

Finally, there is another level that transcends these categories: the pioneers.  These are the people who push the boundaries of genetic genealogy.  They invent new methods and create new tools to help us all.  People like Dana Leeds, who invented the Leeds method.  Or Jonny Perl, who’s DNA Painter site has become almost mandatory for DNA interpretation.  Or Rob Warthen and the DNAGedcom tools.  Or Kevin Borland and his Borland Genetics database of reconstructed ancestral genomes.  There are many other—too many to list—bright minds and novel thinkers that will push us beyond today’s ABCs and into tomorrow’s XYZs.

So where do you fit?  What would you like to learn next?

1 For the beginners: DNA is a long chemical made up of four subunits, like beads on a string. Their true chemical names are beasts, so we use shorthand: guanine, adenine, cytosine, and thymine. G, A, C, and T.  Get it now?

29 thoughts on “Are You Experienced”

  1. If you’re talking about formal certification, it would help if it were modular. Right now, I’m having to get accreditation at work for a job I’ve done for decades. Much of the knowledge for the required accreditation does not apply to my job or interests; levels “above” what I do and topics which don’t apply. So, a degree program would cover everything at a certain level, but employers/jobs would only require specific modules or groups of modules which cover what is needed for those modules and a broad survey of everything else (you can’t know what you don’t know until you know what you don’t know — which might include what everyone doesn’t (yet) know). Maybe you could identify modules by a formal set of keywords which apply to them. An employer could require that you be accredited in all modules which have two or more of these keywords…

    1. I agree that for certification, prior knowledge should be accommodated. Perhaps a combination of self-paced modules, live classes, and practicums would be ideal.

  2. I think your joke/alleles reference was funny.😊

    I think that I am intermediate, but maybe on the beginner side of it, if that makes sense. I grasp more than some, but nowhere nearly as much as some others do.

    I was thrust head first, from a sound sleep, more or less, into having to learn and apply the concepts in order to find the identity of my biological father. With the help of a friend, we found my paternal grandparents and then got DNA verification of my father.

    Now, I try to help others with what I have learned.

    I will never be an expert by any stretch. If I could redo my life, I would major in genetics. But that is not to be at this stage. I will, however, spend the rest of my life learning all that I can from the masters of genetic genealogy.

    I find it all quite fascinating and exciting!

  3. I’ve been wondering this lately as a long time member of DNA Detectives and volunteering as a search angel. I was wishing that they had some sort of “try out” system as I worry that not everyone who claims to be a search angel is as skilled as one should be when handling such sensitive subjects (myself included…maybe I’m not as skilled as I believe myself to be at this). Any suggestions on where to go to further education in genetic genealogy that is cost effective (for those of us who do not plan to be skilled enough to bill anyone any time soon)?

  4. I consider myself advanced and have figured out many relationships for cousins related to me. But I believe its very hard for African-Americans to figure out these close connections with others because of the surname changes and I build out trees for anyone who has some information in their tree and still cannot find the common ancestor. It gets a little frustrating, but I will not give up.

  5. Great idea. I find it difficult to find advanced classes and lectures. There is more than enough beginner content available but your message is on target for all the people providing content as well as those seeking it. Standardize the measurement of skill and knowledge. Let’s do it.

  6. In skiing there are four categories: Beginner (you’ve skied a handful of times at most and are still learning how to turn and fall safely), novice (you can turn well and fall safely, but prefer the more gentle slopes and ski at a leisurely pace), intermediate (you ski faster and take steeper trails), expert (you can ski anything and quickly). As a skier I was stuck pretty much as a novice even after skiing for years because there weren’t too many intermediate slopes I felt comfortable skiing. That’s where I am with DNA. Not a beginner because I’ve been doing it too long to be a “beginner,” but not an intermediate because I still get dizzy looking at charts and numbers and I can’t handle the turns of the more complex problems and tools. So I am a novice at DNA: I know the terms, have tests on multiple sites, and am aware of the ethical issues, but that’s as far as I am comfortable going. So I think you need a fourth category for people like me!

    1. I love the ski analogy! In your case, you started out on a double-diamond slope, so it’s no surprise you wanted to take the skis of and hike down.

      1. LOL! When I first was a true beginner skier, I once did take off my skis and hike down a hill that looked too scary.

        I continue to hope that someday I will solve one of my DNA mysteries.

  7. Hi
    “So where do you fit?”
    Given the information in the table, I am not a beginner and definitely not “Advanced”. Most of the items in the intermediate column fits.

    “What would you like to learn next?”
    1. Please, I would love to learn how to find relationships with matches (autosomal DNA) where there is endogamy. I am from a population where there is a very high level of endogamy and pedigree collapse. The relationships I find is 99% because of good trees.
    2. I would also like to learn how to find relationships with matches of mitochondrial DNA and Y-DNA. At this stage, the haplogroup given is just for “interest sake” – what to do with it? (I know that mtDNA and Y-DNA works over a much longer period than atDNA)


    1. Haplogroups are useful for ruling out relationships but not for proving them. For that, you need to do a specific yDNA or mtDNA test. Even then, the results need to be analyzed alongside other information, because of the longer time frames for those tests.

      As for endogamy, that’s the Holy Grail of autosomal DNA. We don’t yet have the tools to address endogamy easily (but we’re working on them).

  8. How about starting off like this:

    1. Create a website/page, or approach an existing neutral site which seems to be reasonably appropriate for the purpose (maybe ISOGG?).

    2. Start off with a thorough list of topics. For each, provide a simple definition, and a list of categories it’s associated with. Definitions may vary somewhat depending upon the focus. Suggest using a wiki for this.

    3. Over time, as material is identified, link the material to each appropriate topic and category, along with a rough indication of experience level; beginner, novice, intermediate, expert, or pioneer. Include the year that it was added or updated, so that those wanting a refresher will know which items to look at. If possible, collect ratings and constructive criticism for the authors to update their material. Consider using as a catalog of all available training material; use ratings to rank them. Use a database for this, one which the wiki can pull filtered tables out of.

    4. Try to keep things simple, to at least one level below, for the benefit of those who need to know, but don’t visit the topic regularly enough to have it thoroughly memorized. For example, always provide the meanings of abbreviations, etc., such as by linking to the site. High-level descriptions should ideally be understandable even by general public.

    5. Include quizzes to confirm material has been learned properly.

    6. Ideally, work with a certification, etc., site so people can keep track of what material they’ve covered already. A certification site might handle items 3 and 5 above.

    1. …you really need lists so that you can identify what experience level a lesson is at. “This lesson is experience level intermediate. Recommended prerequisites: topic a, novice level, topic j, novice level, and topic z, intermediate level.”

  9. I also like the ski analogy. Explained this way, I am also stuck on novice level as there are not many (read: none) intermediate slopes (read: “endogamy free” opportunities) for me to practice on in the population I come from.

    1. When I first started out and hit the double-diamond of my own endogamy, I decided to set my own genealogy aside and volunteer for adoptee cases. That gave me plenty of intermediate-level experience.

    2. Endogamy free…what a dream that would be! I am not as altruistic (or curious) as Leah, so doing adoptee cases for people I don’t know hasn’t yet reached my radar. I just keep sticking to the paper trail and hoping that someday, somehow there will be a tool that can help those of us with endogamous backgrounds.

  10. Great seminal post.
    I have been struggling with the same question of how to evaluate competency among those I teach DNA genealogy. Some sessions are like the single teacher schools my parents went to in the country. Children were of all ages, abilities and competencies and learned in different ways. So I really like your classifications. Maybe it will help me prevent advanced people signing up for sessions for those BELOW your beginner’s category.
    To some extent we have some additional minor competencies for the non-US-centric: dealing with lower match numbers and some different countries of origin. For anyone, there can be additional minorities. There are also those who came into genealogy from a genetic interest. Or are really only interested in Deep Genealogy.
    Sometimes this is more than one person can handle, so it’s lucky we have a “village”, with some people specialized in various areas. As well as a few in adjacent “villages” who can help us with mapping, languages, surnames and so on.
    In fact I would include “Surname variants and origins” somewhere in Intermediate or Advanced. Again, fortunately I have a backwoodsman available who made a significant study on DNA/surnames.
    So maybe that is another competency, but one that increases across the levels: knows resources – people, online, books.

  11. The ski analogy hints at an important factor, confidence. Confidence is built through experience and making progress on research.

    And thanks for the pun. My kids and my first name initials are CGTA (in birth order) and my kids pointed this out to me after we started colour-coding events on the family calendar (this was back in the 90’s before we could share calendars electronically). We are truly a genetic family!

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