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Cool job: Digging up the past with a genealogist

Digging Up the Past with a Genealogist

by Shannon Dauphin Lee | April 16, 2013



Janice Sellers has made a living out of finding people. As a professional genealogist, her days consist of working on a "jigsaw puzzle" of research, trying to find all the pieces and making sure they fit properly.

"Genealogy is like a jigsaw puzzle," Sellers points out on her website, "but you don't have the box top, so you don't know what the picture is supposed to look like. As you start putting the puzzle together, you realize some pieces are missing, and eventually you figure out that some of the pieces you started with don't actually belong to this puzzle. I'll help you discover the right pieces for your puzzle and assemble them into a picture of your family."

Fluent in many languages and with decades of experience, Sellers has plenty to say about her cool job -- and advice for those who might be interested in completing some historical jigsaw puzzles of their own.

Q: A professional genealogist definitely sounds like a cool job! What does your work entail?

A: As a genealogist, I research people. My research can be for several different purposes. I do family history research for individuals and corporations. I have researched specific individuals. I work with people who are trying to gain dual citizenship by helping them determine what documents they need, where to find them, and in what form they need to be submitted. I work with law firms to research descendants of people who bought property decades ago to put those descendants in touch with corporations interested in the land today.

I also work on probate cases where it is necessary to identify all descendants and possible heirs. I have assisted with researching family members of POW/MIA armed services members to try to identify appropriate individuals to test for possible DNA matches of recovered remains. I have worked on cases to identify and locate next of kin in cases of unclaimed decedents.

Q: It sounds like professional genealogy is a very broad field.

A: A professional genealogist can do many different kinds of work. Many people are generalists. Some people specialize in specific types of research, e.g., ethnic groups, adoption, geographic areas, house histories. Others are authors, speakers and librarians. The best way to find a professional genealogist in the U.S. is to visit the Association of Professional Genealogists, where you can search by location, research specialty and other factors.

Q: How did you get into this line of work?

A: I have been interested in family history since I was very young. As I did more research on my family, I learned that there were people who did this kind of research for a living. I decided it was something I wanted to do also. I asked some professionals I knew how to get started, and they recommended volunteering to research some friends' families for free to make sure I enjoyed it. I discovered I absolutely loved it and haven't looked back.

Q: If you could go back in time and evaluate your educational choices, would you still choose a degree in foreign language?

A: I probably would still choose the same degree, because I did not pick it with a specific job in mind. I went to college to get an education, not a job, and I chose a major that was interesting to me. I think a major in liberal arts taught me to think critically, and that's probably one of the strongest skills I bring to my work. That said, being able to read multiple foreign languages is definitely an asset. History is also a subject that is easily applicable to this work.

And, of course, it is possible to earn a Bachelor of Arts in family history at Brigham Young University, currently the only accredited degree in family history in the U.S.

Q: What would you say to someone who was considering a career in any aspect of genealogy?

A: I would give the same two pieces of advice I was given: Volunteer to do research for friends and family and see if you still like it, and buy a copy of Professional Genealogy and read it cover to cover.

Also, if someone is interested in the research aspects of genealogy, it helps to be anal retentive and obsessive-compulsive. That means you'll remember a lot of odd little facts and be able to recall them when you need to, and you'll want to keep hunting for the information that will help you tie a family together.

Q: Tell us about a success story that still makes you smile.

A: I think one of my greatest successes was the property case where all I was given was the year the person purchased the property and his name: two initials and a last name. I had no other information about him, just where the property was bought. And as I discovered, the last name as it was given to me was incorrect. I was able to identify the correct person and his heirs.

More about Janice Sellers

1. What did you eat for breakfast? Organic vanilla yogurt and an avocado.
2. Which day of the week is your favorite? Sunday, because it's usually the day I can spend the most time researching.
3. Which day of the week is your least favorite? Thursday, because I have to collect all the trash for pick-up on Friday.
4. What was the first job you ever had? Babysitting, and working in my grandfather's stamp and coin store.
5. What makes you angry? Hypocrisy.
6. What makes you joyful? Children and animals.
7. If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? Kosher chef.
8. If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would you choose? More languages -- especially Hebrew and Yiddish.
9. What did you want to be when you grew up? A stewardess.
10. Can money bring you happiness? Nope!

About the Author

Shannon Dauphin Lee has been writing professionally for almost two decades on a wide variety of topics, including medical and health issues, education, home repair and relationships. She is the author of several published novels.