I’m so happy to present the fourth installment in my How They Do It series, in which I ask well-known genealogists how they organize their own research. The series runs the first Tuesday of each month, though this week I forgot! (Yes, even professional organizers mess up their schedules sometimes.)
This month I interview Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide. Diahan is an expert in genetic genealogy and is a regular speaker at genealogy conferences. She manages to make the confusing topic of using DNA in genealogy understandable, no small feat, in my opinion. I’ve had the pleasure of doing a consultation with her about my own autosomal DNA results, which was a very valuable experience! For this interview, we focused on Diahan’s genetic genealogy research.
How They Do It: Diahan Southard
How long have you been doing genealogy?
I have been involved in genetic genealogy since the beginning, so about 17 years.
What’s your favorite part of doing genetic genealogy?
My favorite part about genetic genealogy is the unexpected tangible connection that I feel with my DNA cousins that I have never met.
Do you consider your genealogy research well organized?
I honestly spend more time helping others than I do on my own research at this point, so while I feel like I have some good organization in the DNA realm, I know my traditional research could use some help.
What type of software do you use for organizing your genetic genealogy research?
Each testing company does offer some limited means for keeping track of your matches in the form of notes. When I look at a match, I just make a quick note in that person’s profile about what I did and what I found, especially if I was able to find the common ancestor. This makes it easy for me to remember when I go back weeks later.
Do you have a tree on Ancestry? If so, is it public or private? Why?
I do have a public tree on Ancestry as it gives me access to all of the best genetic genealogy tools at AncestryDNA. With a public tree I get access to the DNA circles and New Ancestor discoveries features, as well as the shaky leaf hints. Having my tree public also allows me to take advantage of other people’s research time, meaning that my tree is out there for them to peruse so that my DNA matches might be able to identify our connection even if I haven’t had a chance to look yet.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to organizing your genetic genealogy?
The biggest challenge in genetic genealogy is figuring out what to do with all of those fourth cousins! Most of us have so many. The best thing to do is to pull your Best Matches out of the longer list and focus on those. Your best matches have shared surnames, shared locations, or are your best genetic matches.
What’s your biggest piece of advice to beginners in genetic genealogy in terms of keeping track of their research?
If you are just getting started in genetic genealogy, please don’t get overwhelmed by the more experienced people telling you that you HAVE to have this fancy tool or you HAVE to transfer your data to another database. Spend at least a year getting to know the database you were tested in and don’t worry about anything else for now.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to do to stay organized when it comes to family history research?
Stay focused on one goal. Don’t get distracted by other shiny objects.
If you were starting out new in genetic genealogy what would you do differently?
I would test more of my ancestors before they passed away. If you have parents or grandparents, or aunts or uncles still around, go order them a DNA test!!
Do you keep paper or electronic files (or both)?
All my genetic genealogy is electronic.
Do you use Evernote, One Note or any other electronic organizing system for your genealogy? If so, how do you use it?
I do use Evernote to clip particularly helpful articles or charts to help me make sense of my genetic genealogy results. I also use it to save screenshots of DNA circles and New Ancestor discoveries, or important matches.
Do you have anything to add?
While the ins and outs and ups and downs of genetic genealogy can take you down many paths with many twists and turns, keep in mind that it really comes down to a simple concept: if you share DNA, you are family.
Diahan obviously has a lot to teach those of us struggling with knowing what to do with our DNA results! I really love her advice to stayed focused and to spend a year getting to know the database you’ve tested with before branching out to other databases or trying new tools. And, of course, her advice to test your older relatives now, while they’re still with you, is so important.