Sunday, April 23, 2017

So You Want to Take a DNA Test: Advice for Non-Genealogist Friends

This post is for my friends who are not genealogists.

I've had a lot of conversations recently with people who have not researched their family history in depth but are intrigued by the idea of taking a DNA test. Most people are curious about their origins, whether or not they have the time and inclination to dive into real genealogical research. I have been asked a number of times by friends whether they should take a DNA test and what they might learn by doing so. As we approach National DNA Day, with DNA tests on sale, I wanted to offer some guidance, with the caveat that I am not a geneticist, and this is all based purely on my own experience as a DNA beginner.

Why take a test
Most non-genealogists seem to be interested in using DNA to get an ethnicity estimate. When you test, you will be given a graph or pie chart that breaks down your ethnicity into categories. This provides a quick overview of the regions where your ancestors lived. For those who are just starting out with family history, or who don't know anything about their roots, this can either confirm the family lore you know, or provide some tantalizing new information. These ethnicity estimates need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they can be a helpful starting point. More interesting than the ethnicity estimates, to me, are the cousin connections. When you test, you'll be given a big list of others who've tested and share your DNA, to various extents. If you enter a family tree, you can start seeing how these people are connected to you. More on that below.

Where to test
There are three major companies offering DNA tests: Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA and 23andme. For the beginner, I recommend testing with Ancestry. They have arguably the largest DNA database, and I think that their interface is the easiest for beginners to navigate. As mentioned above, after you test, you will get a pie chart showing your ethnic makeup and a list of all the people in the database who share some of your DNA. Even if you don't know much about DNA or your deep family history, Ancestry makes it easy to make sense of your results. Their interface is really straightforward. Ancestry also offers the option to extract the raw data from your test, meaning you can transfer it to other DNA companies that offer more sophisticated tools, like FamilyTreeDNA, should you want to get further involved with genetic genealogy.

My ethnicity estimate results page on Ancestry

First steps
After submitting your test, you will want to start a free trial at and enter a basic family tree.  If you DNA test without having a tree in place, it's going to be difficult to figure out how you connect with your matches.  It's okay if you haven't researched your whole family.  Just enter what you know for now.  Resist the temptation to click on the hints Ancestry will provide you and start adding a bunch of new ancestors to your tree.  Ancestry's hints are often incorrect, or at least need to be analyzed carefully.  You can work on expanding your tree over time, if you're interested in doing so.  For now, just enter the immediate relatives you know for sure. Your free trial is only good for two weeks, and it's going to take at least six to get your DNA test results back (more in peak periods, like right after Christmas), so you might want to wait until your results arrive to get started. Once your trial expires, Ancestry gets expensive, but I encourage you to get a paid membership, at least for a while, so you can fully explore your results and expand your tree.

What to do after you test
You've gotten your DNA test results. Now what? This is the title of many a blog post in the genealogy community. If you're a total beginner to DNA and genealogy in general, my recommendation is to use this time to start looking into your family history. Do you have grandparents and elderly relatives still living? Bring them your DNA results. Ask what they think. Talk to them about their families. There's a post in the Know Your Stories archives on questions to ask your relatives that should help start a good conversation about family history. Write down what your relatives tell you. Use the information they give you to flesh out a family tree. Everyone has that one aunt who supposedly knows everything about the family and has all the photos. Call her! Find out what she knows. Get copies of some of those photos. These are all valuable first steps. What you don't want to do is spend your two week free trial attaching every possible ancestor under the sun to your Ancestry tree, via those tempting shaky leaf hints, because that's how you end up with a tree full of mistakes, and that's how your children grow up thinking they're descended from Charlemagne. Start with your family members, find out what they know, and grow from there. Look up the genealogy society in your area and see when they're having a meeting. At my genealogy society, we have a dedicated DNA group that gets together to talk about what their DNA results mean. Finding a group like this is a great way to make the most of your test.

Be aware
DNA testing can reveal secrets you may not want to know.  Some people, like CNBC anchor Bill Griffeth, have learned that their parents are not their parents.  This is an unusual result, but certainly possible.  After a DNA test, my own father learned that his family line had a "non-paternal event" several centuries ago.  You're unlikely to encounter any huge revelations, but they do happen.  Your results may also challenge your notions of your ancestry.  If you're really attached to that story you've been told about your Cherokee princess great-great-grandmother (almost always a myth, by the way), it may be tough to learn that you don't have a bit of Native American DNA. Keep your expectations in check and be open to what you learn.

DNA testing, for me, has been a great compliment to the traditional genealogy I was already doing. It's definitely provided some new insights and opened some interesting doors. I highly recommend that anyone who is curious about their origins take a test, and let this lead you into the exciting world of family history.