Career Talk With The Barefoot Genealogist

During RootsTech 2015, I had the privilege of talking with Crista Cowan about her job as a Corporate Genealogist for Ancestry.

Crista majored in business management during college, as she was unaware that her passion for family history could be transformed into a career. After graduation, she took a position in LA as a software support manager. On the side, she continued learning more and more about genealogical research. Eventually, her hobby transformed into a career. She opened her own genealogy business and never looked back.

A little over ten years later, Crista was hired by Ancestry to assist both in research and in growing their brand. Some of her projects as a corporate genealogist and PR guru include recording a series of YouTube videos as the Barefoot Genealogist and doing behind the scenes research for TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? She finds the work extremely fulfilling and even gets enough autonomy to continue researching her own family while on the clock. This helps Crista stay up to date on all the new resources, techniques, and technologies available in her field.

Technology has made staying up to date in genealogy a difficult task. In fact, Crista believes that education is the biggest issue in her field right now. There is a great challenge in trying to help the public find their ancestors on top of teaching them how to use the new tools and documents as they become available. There is simply too much happening, too quickly.

However, technology has also helped open up family history to new audiences. Crista recalled that many of the people she interacted with ten years ago were American women over the age of 55. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to receive e-mail from a teenager or a European asking for assistance in their research.

Crista mentioned that there are two main paths for those who are looking to make a career in genealogy. For those who enjoy academia, the first route requires attending a Family History program at a university. The largest of these programs is stationed in nearby Provo at Brigham Young University.

As Crista’s career path demonstrates, there are still great opportunities in the field of family history that do not require a formal degree. Getting in the door as a self taught genealogist requires becoming ingrained in the family history community. Typically, this is done by attending conferences such as RootsTech or by attending intensive genealogical institutes.

Crista has learned a plethora of information from these genealogical institutes. In fact, when she first began taking on clients she ran into a little turbulence when many of her clients came to her asking about their Jewish ancestry. At the time she had no experience tracing Jewish lineages, but by attending an institute or two and asking her cohorts, she was able to answer her client’s questions. Eventually, she gained enough skill in researching Jewish families that it has become one of her areas of expertise.

There is decent money to be made as a genealogist. The amount a professional genealogist will charge their clients depends on the intensity of the work completed. For fulfilling simple requests, which only require a quick visit to an archive to obtain a document unavailable on the web, most genealogists charge about $15 per request. Genealogists working in a niche part of family history can charge upwards of $150. An example of a niche genealogist would be an individual who have the ability to read and access documents in an uncommon foreign language.

Crista’s job is funded through Ancestry subscriptions, but most independent genealogists run their own businesses and earn their wages through completing freelance research for clients.

A big thank you to Crista for granting me an interview! I learned a lot and have even begun looking into upcoming genealogical institutes.