What do you actually do!? Episode 35: Christina Copland, Genealogist

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Christina works for the family history company Ancestry, where she researches client families in the U.S, Canada, U.K, Ireland and the Caribbean. She gained a PhD in History from the University of Southern California in 2018, and before that an MA in Modern History from the University of York. Her research focused on the relationship between capitalism, education and fundamentalist Christianity in 20th century Los Angeles.

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Kate  0:02  

You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do!? podcast. Each week we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. 

Kate  0:12  

Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do!?. My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about working in genealogy. Today we’re joined via Skype by Dr. Christina Copland, who works as an Associate Genealogist at Ancestry. And before we get started, I just have to give a little disclaimer that Christina is, in fact, my sister, and we do have apparently quite similar sounding voices. So just wanted to confirm – she’s a real person, and I’m not talking to myself. So, Christina, what do you actually do? 

Christina  0:44  

Well, I investigate people’s family history – is the short answer to that. So essentially I look at, that depending on what a client wants, I try to trace their family back. It might be, kind of, their whole family, somebody might be interested in a particular branch. So they’re interested in, like, maybe their father’s, like, direct paternal family. It really varies. But I… Yep, so I’m essentially somebody’s personal historian. 


So what are the key elements of your role? How does it actually work? Do people kind of email you and say: ‘This is my name, find out everything you can’. What happens? 


Okay, so I work as, as you mentioned, I work for Ancestry, which is, kind of, the biggest family history company, and I’m sure a lot of people would have heard about it. It’s website-based, and there’s also the DNA test that you can do. But what happens for me is: people will contact Ancestry, and generally they don’t say, kind of – ‘Investigate my whole family’, because we work by the hour, and that can get pretty expensive. So what a lot of people are interested in is kind of a specific problem. So, maybe if they’re complete beginners, and they’re just like – ‘I… you know, I’m interested in my family history, I don’t really know where to start’. That might be a project where we’ll look at, maybe like, kind of their grandparents, and kind of go back a few generations from there. But we also get a lot of people who are – they’re pretty experienced kind of hobbyist genealogists, and maybe they’ve been working on their family histories for years and years, but they’ve come hit a brick wall, they’ve found, you know – they’ve got to a certain ancestor, and they can’t take it back any further. So they’re looking to, kind of, come to the experts to see if we can help them overcome that and take their ancestry back further. 


So, are you talking to the customers, and kind of understanding what they want? Or is it just you get tasked with – ‘Oh, find a birth certificate for this person’, or something. 


Okay, so… Just, kind of, a little bit about, like, how where I work is structured. We have more kind of client facing roles, and those will be people who kind of communicate regularly with the client, and kind of initially get things set up. They have a conversation with the client, and kind of really get, like, a detailed sense of, like, what, you know – ‘What is it that you want? Is this feasible within, kind of like, the amount of time that you want to pay for?’, and they’ll kind of keep in touch with the client, like, throughout the project, giving them updates, and, like, responding to any questions. But then the actual research task itself is kind of parceled out to me, and I generally don’t have any personal contact with the client. But in terms of the research that I do, I’ll have the whole project work on – so I’ll make the research plan, and carry out all of the research, and then write it up, and deliver it back to the client. So it’s a lot more in-depth than just, like – the client has requested this specific document, I’ll get the document and give it to the client. 


We’re in the middle of a global pandemic right now, FYI. Are you able to work from home in your role, and how is your day different from normal?


So, I am able to work from home at the moment. What I do is very computer-based, so it was a pretty seamless transition for me to go from the office to working at home. I essentially do exactly what I did before, just at home rather than in an office. And as a researcher who works, kind of… My method of working is structured around billable hours – a little bit like a lawyer – so you’re actually working on your own a lot because you really only want to be billing the client for, like, your hour of work. So it’s not really a collaborative kind of process, because then, once you start involving, kind of, a team of people or more than one person, you’re billing a client for that other colleague’s time as well. So that actually made working from home easier, because it wasn’t like you were kind of constantly working with colleagues, and now you’ve got to try and work that process out being all remote from each other. It’s pretty easy; if you need to talk to a colleague, you know, there’s Slack, there’s Zoom, there’s the tools that we are all using these days. So you can, kind of, talk to your colleagues if you need to, but really, you’re just working on your own, so that’s pretty easy to do at home. 


But would you have… Before, would you ever have gone to an archive to find some, like, ancient parchment of someone’s family history or something? Or is it all literally done on computers? 


I wish! And I think probably people’s mental image of, like – well, a historian generally – but maybe particularly genealogists, that you are, like, working in this office with, like, books that are, like, stretching up to the ceiling with one of those ladders that you use, and like, a roaring fire. That’s the fantasy! I’m like… I wish it was like that. The reality is – we tend not to go into archives ourselves, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. It gets very expensive when you have to factor in time for travel, and so on and so forth. So, what we tend to do is – we will work with on-the-ground researchers quite often. So say, we need a document… I’ll give you an example. I was just liaising with somebody in England, because I needed some parish records that were held at Nottinghamshire archives. And so, I just got in contact with him, he was able to, you know, he is a local person, he was able to get copies of those documents, and, you know, send images of them to me. And that’s generally the approach that we go for. So, when we need to, we, as researchers, are sometimes kind of coordinating other people’s work, and that’s just the most cost effective way of doing things. And I mean, a lot of records -family history records – are digitised, and, you know, accessible remotely, and that’s great. That makes my job a lot easier. But a lot of things are still held in archives, and so you do need someone who can go in, and, as a trained historian, I do miss, kind of, actually handling the kind of physical copies of things, and kind of going in and seeing historical documents. It is different seeing them just on the screen. But yes, it’s a lot more convenient when they are digital.


Less dusty, I guess. 


It is less dusty, and from the comfort of your own home. 


So you have a PhD in History, are postgraduate qualifications essential for anyone wanting to get into, or progress within family history roles. And does this differ from people working as freelance genealogists?


I would say no. I mean, I had a pretty unusual path into genealogy. I would say most… The kind of much more common route – a lot of people have History undergrad degrees, or specific Family History undergrad degrees, and they’re… that’s a pretty rare degree to have. There are, kind of, a few institutions, a couple I know in the US specifically, where you get that degree and then you kind of go into genealogy. But much more common is – people have kind of these special accreditations in genealogy, and they’re, sort of, not within the realm of higher education, but are more, kind of, professional qualifications that you can do. So that’s kind of the more usual route you will have: kind of, you have a degree in History or History related subject, go either, kind of, go into genealogy from there, or maybe you’ve been interested in genealogy since you were a young person, and then you also get these professional qualifications. 


Well, that’s good news. But I guess having a PhD is helpful in terms of – you really know how to research stuff quickly and efficiently. And I mean, was it, sort of… Did it impress when you were trying to get the job? Or was it kind of: ‘Oh, you are overqualified.’ How did it impact? 


No, I think it definitely was, it definitely was an asset. Because, first of all, as you say, it really demonstrates that you can, not only research to a high level, but you’ve got… you’ve acquired a lot of, just like, content knowledge about whatever your PhD is, kind of, broadly focused on, so for me it was US history. And it also shows that you can write well, also.. And writing is kind of an integral part of what I do, obviously alongside the research, and having a PhD really demonstrates that you have those kinds of communication skills. And as I said, it really made me stand out from, kind of, like the vast majority of people who, you know, don’t have that level. What I had to do, I have to say, is kind of work a little bit to convey to Ancestry that, even though I didn’t have this kind of deep background in genealogy, I hadn’t been building out my family tree since I was six years old, or whatever, that I could kind of pivot to using my historian skills to this very specific field, and that they would translate easily, and that having that PhD didn’t make me kind of overqualified, or not the right fit, but was actually going to bring something to the table that maybe other genealogists didn’t have. And that’s not to say that there are no other people with PhDs who work as professional genealogists, because that’s not the case. And where I work, there are, I believe, at least three other people who have PhDs. So it’s not… I’m not some kind of unicorn or anything. 


So you say.


But yeah, so I would definitely say that it’s not common, it’s not necessary, but for me, it really has been an advantage. 


So what actually moved… Sorry, what motivated you to move into genealogy as a career after your PhD then?


Well, it was when I started to do my own family history, that’s just, the kind of, the simple answer. I guess I was always curious about my family history, but as kind of strange as it sounds now – I just didn’t have any idea that you could find all of this stuff out, which I find kind of laughable, like, knowing what I know now. But I just, you know… There were a few family stories, but it never dawned on me that you could actually, like, look things up, and, like, verify it or find out more. So you know, I kind of had this interest, and I was coming towards the end of my PhD, and I finally had kind of a little bit of free time, finally. And as, like, a little bit of a treat, I was like – oh, you know, I’m finally going to, you know, I’m going to get my free subscription to Ancestry, you know, have a little poke around for the two weeks that you get, and that will be that. And I just found it addictive. I just couldn’t… I had some really cool discoveries very early on, and I just thought – wow, I can’t believe this information is out there, and it’s so fascinating. And once you do a little bit, you’re hooked, and you just want to find out more and more. And I just realised that – this is history, I find it really enjoyable, and there’s an actual industry out there where they give people jobs and pay them to do it. And obviously I was coming… You know, I was gonna graduate that same year. And so I needed to find… I needed to, you know, actually find a job at that point. And I knew that I didn’t want to go down the academia route, I knew that that wasn’t for me. So, you know, I was kind of thinking about a couple of different options of being a professional historian, or being able to use my skills in a non-academic setting, and I explored a couple of different options. But you know, it just… I did some informational interviews, and nothing, just nothing fit. And then I just… I started doing my, as I said, my own genealogy, and I just kind of checked like – oh, you know, I wonder if Ancestry is hiring, just kind of on a whim, you know. And I saw that they had this Associate Genealogist position, and I just thought, like, why… You know, the worst that can happen is that they’ll turn around and say, you know – thanks, but no, thanks. I just need to try. And obviously I tried and was successful, and just never looked back. 


And from memory I remember you connected with somebody on LinkedIn, who, I think… Had she gone to the same university as you, for that you did for your PhD? So that was, I think, when you mentioned informational interviews -that’s a really good way of finding out the background of a job, isn’t it, before actually speaking to the hiring person. 


Yes! And that was such a serendipitous moment. Yeah, I found on, as you said, on LinkedIn, somebody who had gone to USC as well. Different…. She was there at same time, but, like, she, you know, we didn’t overlap at all. 




But I saw that she worked at Ancestry, and I just thought, you know – I’ll just try to message her, and maybe she just be receptive to talking a little bit more about the company, you know, just in a low key kind of way. She was just so amazingly friendly and helpful, and we had a chat with each other, and she really helped me, kind of, confirm that, like – yeah, this is something that I should go for. And yet again, it just really proved that, kind of, doing that groundwork before, kind of, taking that step of applying is really important, both in terms of, you know, making your potential application as successful as possible, but confirming to yourself, like – is this company the right fit, you know, is this something I really want to be a part of. I would definitely recommend that for anybody who wants to get any kind of job, just trying to do as much of that kind of work as possible beforehand. 


Yes, it’s making that informed choice isn’t it, and kind of getting a sense of how it really feels to do a job, as well as just the generic job description. So you’ve mentioned research, obviously, and it’s clear – a real enthusiasm for history, and family history in particular, are really important. But what else would you say is useful to have in terms of personal strengths or qualities, if someone wanted to be happy and successful as a genealogist? 


Being able to work within the model of professional genealogy, and just to kind of, like, expand on that a bit more. As I mentioned, you work as a kind of a billable employee. And that’s really the same for, I think, every professional genealogist, whether you work for a big company like Ancestry, or whether you’re just an independent person who’s providing those services. Obviously, a research project is completely… You know, you can’t guarantee a certain outcome – it’s a research project, you don’t know what the end point is going to be. So you have to be able to work within, kind of, the scope of what the client is willing to pay for. And so, let’s just say, they’re willing to pay £1000, I just picked that figure out of my head. You need to find a way to design what you’re going to do to fit that amount of money, because you can’t say like – ‘I’m gonna, for a £1000, I’m going to find the identity of your great-great-grandparent’, because you could find that person within an hour, it might take you 50 hours to find that person. So you need to be somebody who can be very self-disciplined about the work that you do – you can’t procrastinate, you can’t just ignore the clock and just kind of go down a rabbit hole and just be like – oh, you know, I think I’ll look at this, and I’ll look at that, oh dear, five hours has gone by. You have to be somebody who, you know, plans what they do, executes that within the timeframe that you’ve got, and then is prepared to draw a line under your work – you’ve reached your time limit, you’ve, you know, you’ve ticked all your boxes, you’ve written everything up, everything’s in this, kind of, neat package ready to deliver to the client within that time frame. Because if you can’t do that, you kind of spiral out of control, and, you know, you’re left with like – oh no, I’ve, you know, I’ve had my 10 hours allotment, but I don’t have something ready to give the client, or, you kno… So you have to really be able to, as I said, to have that, kind of, organisational skill, self-discipline, self-awareness of what you’re actually doing. That is something which, it’s really tough to do, and that’s probably the thing that I found hardest to get to grips with. Because as a grad student, you do have deadlines, but aside from, you know, I need to submit this essay on the 25th of October, or whatever, kind of, how you get to that point is completely up to you – you might be working like 12 hours a day on it, you might be working two hours a day. It’s just kind of amorphous; you’re not accountable in the same way, and for a lot of jobs you’re not. Before I did my PhD, I worked for three and a half years as a different kind of historical researcher. There it wasn’t billable; the work was organised by, kind of, each report that you did. And whilst there were kind of deadlines when you had to submit that report – how long that report took you within that time frame was completely up to you. So a lot of jobs just don’t have that same very fine-grained time-clocking, and that’s, as I said, that if you’re going to be a professional genealogist, that’s something you need to be able to get to grips with. 


Would you say that’s, the sort of, the downside of the role – having that time pressure and having to focus, you know, and feeling guilty, I guess, if you are not 100% focused, because you want to give the best to that client? 


Absolutely! I mean, the upside of the job is that you feel so invested in what you’re doing, you’re like – I’ve got to, like, solve this mystery, or I’m going to… I’m going to be the one to crack this, or what have you. But of course, yet, the downside to that is – well, you want to solve it, you want to do the best that you can, and sometimes that’s just not possible. And you kind of feel that you’ve come to the end of the time on the project, and you’re like – oh, I really wish I’d been able to go further, but of course the money is gone, you know, that’s the end of the road for you at that point. There is that feeling of like – I really wanted to deliver that to a client, Or, you know, you are only human, so, you know, there’s going to be days where you’re feeling a little bit tired, or a bit distracted, or whatever. You know, you feel like – oh, I really want to pack that up, but I’m working for the client, I want that to be the best, most productive hour because that’s what they deserve. And yeah, there is a tension there of just always wanting to do the best that you can and feeling a real motivation to do that, but also, you know, there’s a kind of a cost to having that constant attitude as well. 


Thinking about how genealogy as a sector is at the moment, and what might be on the horizon – what would you say the sort of key challenges, or key things to be aware of, for students who might be interested in going down this path? 


Well, the present moment, ironically, is kind of a bit of a boom time for genealogy or family history. A lot of people have had time on their hands recently. And, I mean, I know the situation is ever-changing, but certainly, kind of, in the spring and early summer, you know, a lot of people just couldn’t, literally couldn’t go anywhere. And so a lot of people turn to, like – ‘Hm, what can I do on a computer that’s, you know, accessible. Oh, I’ll look into, you know, my family history’. So it’s been a, as I said, it’s… We’ve had a pretty good year as an industry. But obviously, from kind of a economic point of view, who knows what’s going to happen with, kind of, the economy in the US, in the UK. There’s gonna be a huge knock on effect from the pandemic. And so genealogy it’s a… Professional genealogy -it’s a luxury product. 




You don’t need to have somebody… to pay somebody to do your family history. And so, is there going to come a point where, you know, a lot of people are just saying, like – ‘No, we just can’t afford that at the moment. It’s not, yeah… It’s not a priority. We’re just going to put that off, or decide not to do it’. That hasn’t happened, but I could see that happening. But then, to be honest, that’s going to be something that’s facing the vast majority of industries. So you might – if you’re interested in something, doing something – you might as well just go for it. Because, you know, let’s be honest – what industry is not going to be affected at this point?


Yeah, that’s true. And I guess the fact that it is accessible, and that perhaps in times of trouble people do like to look to the past, from a nostalgic point of view, and finding kind of comfort in their family and all of that kind of stuff. I can see that it’s a… I can understand why it would be a popular thing. 


Definitely! And that’s something that we’ve… That Ancestry has seen over the past year – that there really is this interest. It’s not just, you know, people have time on their hands, or whenever. People want to connect… They want personal connections, because they can’t frequently, can’t have actual connections with, like, their actual friends and family physically. I think this is kind of another way to, I don’t know, feel some kind of comfort, or, yeah, have that kind of deeper connection with their own family, their own past. And, yeah, I think that’s something that is very appealing to people at the moment. 


So have you got any kind of top tips for students who maybe want to try and break into this sector? Is there a particular type of work experience that would be useful for them to do, or anything else, any other advice?


Definitely get into, like, doing your own family history as a first, a very first step. But beyond that, yes – any kind of internship or work experience that you can get with a professional. And that might be with, as I said, with an independent person, just kind of like working as their assistant on a few cases, or something more formal with a bigger company. Anything where you can start to get that professional experience. So, once you’re coming to the point of wanting to do this maybe full time, you’re coming to the table already having been exposed to the kind of very particular work methods involved in genealogy, you’ve already become plugged in to the kind of professional genealogy community, you’ve been, hopefully, exposed to the kind of professional organisations of genealogists, of which there are kind of several key ones, both in the US and the UK. I’m sure in other countries as well, but those are the two that I’m aware of. Just to show the, kind of, prospective employer that, as I said, you already know how to work as a professional, you’re not just coming in with academic qualifications, you’re coming in with professional experience as well. 


I’m guessing, just basically, if students can work on additional research projects, get involved in anything like that. Anything to show those research skills, and to evidence that passion and interest in history. 


Definitely! Even if, say, they work with a professional genealogist, and they just kind of provide assistance for free, which I know there are, kind of, loads of issues around unpaid internships, so that’s not something I’d want to, that’s not something I necessarily endorse. But even if you’re doing, you’re investigating somebody’s family history – it could be, you know, a friend or what have you – even if you’re doing that, but you’re producing as if it was kind of like – ‘I’m working for, you know, for a client’. 


Yeah, you can professionalise that. 


Exactly! It’s practice. And…


Sorry, I was just going to say – I remember when you were doing your PhD, you did a family history project on the side for that lady, didn’t you, a friend of a friend? 


Exactly! I mean, first of all, it made me feel good, because you know, I was helping out somebody. It was just a useful experience, because it was low stakes in the sense of, you know – she wasn’t a paying client, I could just kind of take the time that I needed. You know, it was valuable experience, and it exposed me to certain methodologies, and source bases, etc. The more different types of projects that you do, the better you become as a genealogist, which I know is a very obvious thing to say, but it really is about having that range of experiences with different types of research problems, working in different regions, that just, it builds on each other. It really gives you confidence, kind of, going forward, like – oh, you know, yeah, I know, I’ve worked in that county in New York, or I’ve worked on Lancashire cases, or whatever. You have a familiarity with – okay, what kind of sources are available. Are there any kind of known problems, like – oh, all of the records of Lancashire, sadly, got burned to the ground in 1971… I just made that up! 


I was gonna say – did that really happen? 


Yeah, that didn’t really happen. I’ll give you like an actual…


Yeah, give me a real one!


Real example. So Irish research, for example, is very, very challenging, because a lot of records were lost in a fire in 1921, or 1922. So, in terms of census records, there should be censuses for Ireland from, I think, 1830s onwards. Sadly, the first Irish census that you’re likely to actually come across is from 1901. So that’s something that obviously, if you’re going to jump into Irish research, you should be aware of before, especially before saying to a client like – oh, yes, well, I’m going to look in the 1871 Irish census, because there is no 1871 Irish census. Yeah, it’s just having that experience. And you only get experience by doing it. 


Well, I’m going to put some links to the career areas that we’ve sort of mentioned, and some of the genealogy qualification things, and various little articles and things, and a link to the full transcript of today’s show in this episode’s description. But for now, let me just say, Christina, thank you very much for joining us all the way from America today. And yeah, really appreciate you giving up your time. 


Oh, no problem. Happy to participate. 


Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do!? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, edited by Stephen Furlong, and produced by both of us. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers