When DNA Testing “Isn’t Working!”

If DNA test results are coming up empty-handed for your family history research, here are some tips for what to do next.

 
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If we surveyed all of those who have taken DNA tests to learn more about their heritage and ancestry, how many would answer that they are fully satisfied with their results?

I think the level of satisfaction we feel with our genetic genealogy experience has everything to do with our expectations going in. What did you expect? Many are drawn to genetic genealogy by the pretty pie charts and maps that reveal our mix of ancestral heritage. If they are expecting a nice addition to their coffee table pieces, they are pleased. If they are expecting a crystal ball into their ancestral heritage, they are often disappointed. 

Likewise, when you see a 2nd-4th cousin on your match page, you may have every expectation that you can figure out how you are related to each other. But when that common ancestor remains elusive, many fear that the test is not helpful, or worse, inaccurate. 

Case study: What to do next with your DNA

Let’s say you have taken an AncestryDNA test, then transferred the results to Family Tree DNA. You’ve even gone the extra step and uploaded your results into GEDmatch, a free third party tool, and yet, you feel you haven’t made any positive connections. 

For anyone in this situation, here are 2 explanations, and 2 next-steps to help set good expectations for your genetic genealogy experience. 

First, if your family is not from the United States, or have only recently immigrated to the United States, you may not find as many matches in the databases. This will change as time moves on and genetic genealogy gains greater exposure and acceptance in other markets around the world. And this is happening already. (In fact, here’s a great article about where to test for ancestral connections outside the United States.)

If you do have ancestry from the United States, but are still coming up empty handed, it might be because you happen to be the pioneer in your family, the first to jump into genetic genealogy. While millions of people have tested already, millions more haven’t. If you’re from a smaller family line (going back a few generations) or they just happen to be the kind of group who wouldn’t test, you may unfortunately find small numbers online. 

Unfortunately, both of these explanations just require patience to be resolved. 

While you are waiting, here are 2 tips to get the most out of what you have: 

Start with a goal. Maybe you’re interested in a paternal grandmother’s father. Anytime you are researching a male, if you can find his direct paternal descendant, a living male with his surname, you should have him take the YDNA test. 

In the absence of a specific goal, or in addition to that plan, having as many descendants of your ancestor tested as possible will help you fill in the genetic gaps that naturally occur as DNA is passed down. But short of throwing more money at the testing companies, you can search each database by surname and location to look for others who might share these genealogical characteristics with the individual you are looking for.

My second tip is to focus on your closest genetic match and use all the available tools to investigate your relationship. This will involve using the Shared Matches tools found at Ancestry.com, Family Tree DNA, and GEDmatch. In this way you can find multiple individuals that may all be related to you through a single common ancestor. You can then use their known genealogies to look for overlapping genealogical information, like surnames and locations to help you identify your shared common ancestor. 

Most people that I talk to who feel like their DNA has left them empty handed are just simply not aware of how to use the tools and clues at their testing company to tease information out of their matches. That’s why I have written the genetic genealogy quick guides that take you step by step through your results to make sure you are making the most of your DNA test results. These are just a few of my titles—click to see them all:

I also offer personal mentoring to help you interpret your results and full-blown expert research services if you’re ready to have us do the genetics completely (so you can focus on the genealogy!).

Final word for those feeling empty-handed by DNA testing: hang in there! Be patient and persistent. Genetic genealogy is a great tool. Like any good tool, it takes practice to learn how to use it. And like genealogy itself, sometimes it just takes time for those brick-wall-busting clues to surface.

Originally published at www.genealogygems.com. Updated and republished at YourDNAGuide in 2019.