How to Get More from Your DNA Results
One Way to Get More, Plus 4 Bonus Steps
Do you have your DNA test results back and now you’re feeling a little lost or overwhelmed?
Maybe you don’t know what to do with your results but maybe you just feel adrift. You’re not quite sure where to go next or what (or what else) you are going to get from your DNA results.
GETTING STARTED WITH DNA
If you are completely new to genetic genealogy, let me introduce you to the ISOGG Wiki. ISOGG is the International Society of Genetic Genealogy. Their wiki is a great place to start and a place you will even refer to as you become very skilled. They have a page of links to beginning genetic genealogy guides, check it out.
THE FIRST STEP IN GETTING MORE FROM YOUR DNA RESULTS
If you understand the basics of using your DNA results, there’s something else you can do to help yourself focus and get more from them. In fact, I have five suggestions for you. You can get all five in a compact downloadable format. Request it below.
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But there’s a bit more detail I’d like to share with you about the number one way to help you get more from your DNA results. This is such a simple solution but so many genealogists overlook it.
Are you ready for it?
Write down your goal for using DNA.
Pretty simple, right? But I want to share some tips and nuances to help you make the most of this suggestion.
Part of writing down your goal is defining that goal. Here’s the nuanced part of this first step.
DEFINE TODAY'S GOAL
You need to define your goal for using DNA ---TODAY---, not your goal for taking the test in the first place. This should also clue you in to something else. Your goal can (and should) change. This is a step you will repeat periodically throughout your genetic genealogy career.
So start by focusing on what your current goal is. If you’re like me, you may have lots of genealogical interests that could benefit from using DNA. You want to pick ONE goal for now. That should be a goal you are very interested in and are capable of working on.
It’s possible your genetic genealogy goal requires some targetted testing. If you aren’t prepared to sit down and contact the testees (and possibly even purchase the necessary tests), that isn’t a good goal for today. There are lots of examples similar to this when using DNA so don’t just focus on your top interest, consider if it’s a practical goal, as well.
Defining a goal for genetic genealogy is a lot like picking a goal for a research plan in traditional genealogy. They are equivalent steps in the research process, one just focuses on DNA results as a tool.
So let’s review how to define a traditional genealogy goal when we need to create a research plan.
GENEALOGY RESEARCH PLANNING REVIEW
First you start with a broad goal, such as “research my paternal ancestors.” That is not a goal you can create a research plan for, it’s just a place to start. You might instead start with, “find the parents of my great-great grandfather” which is a much better goal for a research plan.
When we are creating a traditional research plan we want to work from a “find a person” type goal down to the very first research we will do. You do this by reviewing the research you’ve done and identifying the next item to find or question to answer. Which depends on what you’ve already done.
You may have done so much research there is one clear record you need to check next. You may also have a possible answer you need to test. Perhaps your research plan requires an answer goal. You migh have the question, “is John Smith of Anytown, North Carolina the father of my great-great grandfather?” Your goal is answering yes or no and that defines what sources you will check. The results to that answer will shape your next steps which involves a new research plan.
GENETIC GENEALOGY RESEARCH PLANNING
Genetic genealogy can be done the same way but there are also other choices. You might be in a position to focus on existing matches which is similar to creating a research plan and focusing on specific sources.
Alternatively, you may need to do some preliminary work to determine what matches you have (i.e. do you have matches that appear to be related to your larger goal---such as your paternal side or even your great-great grandfather?).
GENEALOGY LITERATURE REVIEW
This is similar to doing a “literature review.” If you aren’t familar with this term, it’s when you review the existing published material related to your project. Professional genealogists are used to doing this step but hobbyist genealogists, especially those raised on online research, don’t always do this. (Hint, start doing it with your traditional research, it really helps).
With genetic genealogy, the steps equivalent to a literature review may be a project in themselves. Determining if you have matches that might help work on your great-great grandfather’s family might be months worth of work. A traditional literature review is never that involved so that is a major difference between genetic genealogy and traditional genealogy.
So let’s recap.
- You need to define today’s goal for working with DNA, regardelss of why you took the test.
- This goal needs to be refined just as a goal for a traditional research plan does.
- However, some of the preliminary work with genetic genealogy, the steps simiar to a traditional literature review, can be a project in itself.
This means you still need to refine your goal. However, if you have a very specific goal like you’d use for a research plan, you might actually need a broader goal to determine your next steps with genetic genealogy.
Focusing too much on your specific goal, if a broader goal is necessary first, might leave you spinning your wheels because you don’t have the tools (matches) to work on the specific goal, yet.
There is no generic answer to how specific your goal needs to be, it depends on your project and your matches.
Keep in mind, you have no control over your matches. With traditional genealogy, you could plan a research trip to get additional resources. With genetic genealogy, there’s nothing you can do to get the exact matches you need (even if you pay to have certain people tested, they may not be the match you need or you may need more---from unknown people).
TRADITIONAL PLAN TO GENETIC PLAN
I’ll give one final comparison between genetic and traditional genealogy related to goal setting.
Let’s say you have a goal you’ve attempted with traditional research and now you’re trying genetic genealogy on it.
Your traditional goal might be“identify the maiden name of Mrs. Mary Smith (abt. 1830-1888), wife of John Smith (1825-1900) of Any County, Virginia.”
You may have worked through many research plans for many hypothesis and questions such as,
- “were Mary and John married in Adjacent County, Virginia,”
- “do Mary and John’s children have death certificates,”
- “have all marriages for Mary and John’s children been identified,”
- “are there any known siblings of Mary,”
- “do Mary and John’s children have maternal cousins.”
These all involved very specific goals but maybe didn’t reveal Mary’s maiden name. If you are now attempting to use genetic genealogy (for the first time), you wouldn’t create a “research plan” with a goal such as
“are any of Mary’s siblings' descendants my matches?”
That’s a goal similar to your traditional research questions but it’s too specific for your first foray into genetic genealogy.
Instead, you have to back up. “Do I have any matches on my maternal grandmother’s side” (the side Mary and John belong to). If the answer is no, you can’t work towards identifying matches related to Mary—yet.
If yes, you can start narrowing down, "can I identify matches related to my maternal grandmother's father?" and so on. It's unlikely with DNA that you will quickly get to descendants of Mary's siblings, it'll take time but is possible.
DEFINING A GENETIC GENEALOGY GOAL
So how do you define a genetic genealogy goal? It needs to be more specific than, “use my DNA matches to find new relatives.” You can’t start with “find collateral relatives of Mary Smith,” either. You have to start by determining if you have matches related to your specific project.
Once you do, define a more specific goal but only the next level of a goal (maybe you want to work on your paternal side and your dad was tested, easy, you have those matches without any special work so you can quickly move to the next level).
DNA IS NOT A MAGIC BULLET
Don’t forget to review your related traditional research, though. If you are familar with creating a research plan, treat your genetic genealogy goal similarly. The difference will be, instead of starting with your very specific goal (defined for your traditional research), you’ll need to back up and work through the genetic genealogy steps. You’ll progressively identify related matches and identify the techniques you’ll need to use to further refine them or get the genetic information you need.
Instead of your research plan focusing on using records for a specific goal, your plan will focus on a technique to refine your matches or gather necessary information (such as segment data). Don’t overlook planning necessary education, too.
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If you aren’t familar with creating a traditional research plan, learn more. Genetic genealogy can’t be done without traditional research. Much of the work you’ll do will involve tracing the trees of matches or collateral relatives. Creating a research plan template to work through your chosen project can save you time and help make sure you don’t forget important steps.