Trying to find your ancestors? Not sure where to start? Learn why and how to create a successful genealogy research plan.
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree,  Organize Your Genealogy

How to Create Your Genealogy Research Plan (& Why You Should!)

A genealogy research plan is crucial to finding your ancestors. Learn how to create a successful plan to grow your family tree.

I am a little embarrassed to admit this to you, my genea-friends.

Sometimes when I am researching my genealogy, I find myself  wandering down rabbit trails.

Distracted.

Repeating previous research.

[Hopefully, you won’t judge me!]

When I find my research heading down rabbit trails, that indicates one thing:

I am researching without a plan, and that is NOT a good thing.

I’ve learned to stay off those “oh, so tempting” rabbit trails by  creating a genealogy research plan BEFORE I began my research.

Why You Want to Create a Genealogy Research Plan

When I mention creating a research plan, your mind immediately went back to high school and those dreaded term papers and outlines. Let all that dread go, because a research plan will:

  • Help you stay focused (and off the rabbit trails!🐇).
  • Help you  organize your genealogy research.
  • Help you be efficient with your research time.
  • Help ensure you do not miss potential clues in the research.
  • BONUS: Using a genealogy research will save you money!

Think of your genealogy research plan as a framework or strategy for your search.

What Should Go Into Your Genealogy Research Plan?

All genealogy research plans have a few common components in them. Let’s take a look at 4 of those elements.

Woman in print shirt looking at her family tree pedigree chart
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1. Your Research Question

You can also think of this as your research goal.

What is it you want to learn from your research?  Are you looking for evidence your ancestor in a time and/or place?  Are you attempting to solve a family history mystery? The more specific your goal, the more focused your research will be.

If you are not clear on what you are researching, I guarantee you will end up going down rabbit trails of distraction and have little to show for your research efforts.

Here are two examples of research questions:

  • Who was the father of Emma D. [Thomas] Howard (b. 1858 in Moore County, NC)? or
  • Is the John White of Surry County, NC (in the 1820’s) the same John White from Caswell County, NC (early 1800’s)?

The more specific you make your research question, the better.

In the first example above, researching for the parents of Emma Thomas Howard would be too broad. Focusing on one parent (her father), a time frame and a location brings the project into focus and increases the chances of success.

Likewise, in the second example, broadly researching John White of North Carolina would quickly turn into a quagmire of multiple men with the same name in the state.

Again, the more specific the research question, the better!

Writing your research question  (or goal) on your research plan will keep you focused.

Genealogy Pro Tip: Keep your research question or goal where you can easily see it as you research. I personally, write the goal on a sticky note to put beside me each time I sit down.  Physically writing the primary research question before each research session, helps me get focused quicker. 

Black and white 1930's photo of Joe and Rosa Talbot of Halifax County, VA.

2. Types of Records to Search

Now that you have your research question and know what you want to know, what type of records do you need to research? 

 You may need to first research what records are available for the time period and location where your ancestor lived.

In the first example above concerning Emma Thomas Howard, the records needing to be searched include Emma Howard’s death certificate (Lee County, NC), census records for 1860 and 1870, and North Carolina marriage records.

In the second example of John White, records to be searched could include census records 1790-1830, land records of Surry and Caswell Counties, court records of both counties and will/probate records.

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3. The Location of Records

Where are the records you need to research located? How are you going to access those records?

Are the records online? Do you need a subscription to a genealogy database such as Ancestry.com or FindMyPast to access them? Can you access subscription based genealogy record databases from your public library?

If the records are not online, in what repository are they located?  Do you need to order the record on microfilm?

If you need to research on-site at a repository to research the needed records, schedule the visit on your calendar. (Don’t forget to take your research plan when you go!)

Knowing the location of the records you need to research helps to further organize your genealogy research time.  You will be able to plan your online research from home and your on-site research to fit your time.

White courthouse with colorful fall trees in front

4.Further Clues to Follow Up

This next part of your genealogy research plan will be completed at the end of your research session. When you are done researching for the day, take a moment to clearly note where in your plan you stopped. Write down on the plan where you need to resume the next time you sit down to research.

As you research you will likely find interesting information and clues to other ancestors to follow up on. Resist doing that in the moment!

Make a note of this information for later research, but stay focused on your current research plan. Yes, I know how tempting it is to follow that clue at the expense of your current plan! Resist!

Your genealogy research plan is your guide and does not have to be overly complicated. You may find your answers quickly or you may still be left with your original question. That’s okay. You will will be clear on the records you have already searched and what information those records hold (or don’t hold).

Go back and amend your genealogy research plan and begin again.

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