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That’s why we can’t use a metric based on knowing A, B, and C. In 5 years, A, B, and C might be outdated (Remember mirroring?)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