A Bronx Approach to Research and Funding

Success in Grant Writing Series Editor’s Note: Welcome to the next installment of our Success in Grant Writing series, which will feature guest blog posts written by Rutgers graduate student winners of prestigious fellowships and grants. If you would like to share your experience with successful grant writing, please contact us through our website, gradfund.rutgers.edu

Tom Conte 1

The author in the field in northern Mongolia.

“Scientist” doesn’t often come to mind when people ask me what I do for a living. As a native of The Bronx, NY, I sound a little like a cross between Tony Soprano and Robert DeNiro with all the less-than-academic language you’d expect from both! So, when I tell people “I’m an anthropologist who studies the culture and behavior of Mongolian nomads,” the most common follow-up question is “How does that happen?”

My name is Tom Conte and I am a second year PhD student in Rutgers’s evolutionary anthropology program. In keeping with the spirit of this blog, I’d like to tell you a little about my dissertation research, my successful quest to find outside funding for my work, and how you can use the attitude of a loud-mouthed Bronx Italian to do it too!

On to the research…

In the broadest sense, I’m what you would term a “human behavioral ecologist,” meaning that I study the origins of human behavior in our earliest ancestors and how present human behavior changes in response to various social and environmental conditions. I’m most interested in studying human sharing and cooperative behavior and, more particularly, how natural disasters and other risks affect how people share resources and work together to achieve common goals. My dissertation research focuses on how Mongolian herders use cooperation to overcome environmental disasters and manage natural resources. It is part of a bigger research effort known as “The Human Generosity Project” which is being led by Rutgers and Arizona State Universities. Our overall goal is to study the evolutionary origins of human generosity and cooperation. You can find more information on the project here: www.humangenerosity.org.

Doing research in Mongolia has been one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of my life. As a native New Yorker, living and working in a country that is the size of Western Europe but has a population of just less than three million is quite different from the environment I grew up in. I work with a group of nomads who herd sheep, goats, cattle, and horses in one of the most environmentally harsh regions of the world where winter temperatures can drop as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit. To manage their herds and prevent the overuse of the grassland, these herders live in mobile felt tents and migrate to new pastures four times a year. I have traveled to Mongolia three times since 2009 and am preparing to spend a full academic year there collecting data on how herders share resources and cooperate to manage land and animals.

Tom Conte 2

A typical herding household on the Mongolian steppes.

So, how does that happen? How did I go from eating pizza on E. 187th Street to eating mutton on the steppes of Eurasia? To make a long story short, it sort of happened by accident. When I finished high school, I had the fortune (or misfortune as I saw it then) of being offered a very lucrative tuition/scholarship package to a university that shared the same campus as my high school. This meant that I wouldn’t be in serious debt at the end of my four years, but it also meant that my “college experience” would be virtually non-existent, and college would be for all intents and purposes, an extension of high school.  First World Problems, I know!

After about a year of living at home with my parents and commuting to school, I began to think of escape plans from the boredom I was wallowing in. At some point, I figured out that it would only be marginally more expensive for me to study abroad in China for a year. So, in my third year of undergrad, I signed up to spend a year living in Beijing. During my time in China, I met a Mongolian researcher, became interested in Mongolian culture, and seeing that I was in Asia already anyway, spent six weeks in Mongolia in 2009 with a group of researchers from Montana State University. I’ve been going back ever since.

My experience with seeking funding

From my very first time in Mongolia, I decided that I wanted to make a career out of studying the unique culture and environment of Mongolian nomads. Everything there was fascinating to me from the way people lived and worked to the expansiveness of the landscape itself. I wanted to understand and experience everything, and I knew that a career in anthropology could be a way to do that.

It’s when you first start thinking of applying to graduate school that reality sets in and you realize that you can’t eat your hopes and dreams! I absolutely love what I do, but grad school is an arduous process of jumping through hoops, displaying your academic peacock feathers, and competing in the never ending quest to show that your research is worth enough to merit other people’s money!

Entering the funding game is no easy task, and often, can be quite overwhelming. Rejection is not fun and perhaps even worse is the waiting game and second guessing that follow a grant submission. “Did I do everything right?” “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that in my application, I’m such an idiot!” “Did I format my references the right way?” “So-and-so heard back from NSF already and I didn’t, does that mean I’m screwed?!” Relax! Everyone feels this way.

Thus far, (and not to toot my own horn here) I’ve been fairly fortunate with grant applications. For my dissertation research, I’ve been selected for a Fulbright IIE Fellowship, an NSF doctoral dissertation research improvement grant, and a Cultural Heritage Fellowship from the American Center for Mongolian Studies. Given these successes, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the funding process, for what they’re worth.

Thought 1: Confidence is key

Very often, when grad students read grant and fellowship solicitations, especially early in their grad careers, we psych ourselves out and feel as though we don’t have enough of a well-developed idea to really stand a chance at getting funding. “I’ll apply next year instead of this year,” we often say. In my experience, this is not a good way to think, at least if you are already sure of what your proposed research will be. You are in graduate school and you’ve made it through the bureaucratic process of being selected out of so many others to attend your program. You confidently applied to graduate school and you got in. If you are sure about what your dissertation or thesis research will be, then you should apply the same confidence to seeking funding opportunities. At the very least, you can give it your absolute best effort and you will get useful feedback on how to improve your ideas for future rounds.

Thought 2: Seek the help and feedback of others, especially GradFund

The beauty of going to graduate school, and being a Rutgers student especially, is that you are never alone in your applications. This means that you can and should reach out to your departmental faculty, fellow graduate students, and GradFund for advice and feedback on your applications. The most successful grant applications I have written are also those that were viewed and commented on by the most people. My Fulbright IIE application, in particular, was under constant revision and review by the folks at GradFund and my friends and colleagues in my department. It went through over ten versions before I was ready to submit it and if it takes that many versions, then you should do that many!

You should also consider sending your applications to friends in other departments. If you’re a biologist, then send your proposal to your friend in psychology and see if it makes sense to him or her. If it doesn’t, you might consider ways to reduce jargon and make the proposal more accessible to audiences outside your field. You might even consider sending the funding agency’s program solicitation along with your application so your peers can assess how well your proposal speaks to the goals and objectives of each organization you’re applying to.

Finally, I cannot stress taking advantage of the services at GradFund enough. They were absolutely instrumental in the success of my funding applications and helped me to think of ways to tailor my applications to emphasize the aspects of my research that speak most clearly to the expectations of each funding agency I applied to.

Thought 3: The rule of 10  

I try to treat every funding application cycle as if there was a ten percent chance of being successful, meaning that if I apply to ten different funders, I can expect to only be selected for one grant. This is horribly pessimistic, I realize, but I use it as a strategy to really go above and beyond with the amount of applications I turn out. If there are ten possibilities, then I turn out ten applications to give myself the best chance of scoring something even though in reality, the odds are probably more favorable!

I would also never discount smaller grants of $1,000 – $5,000. At times a little money here and there turns into a lot of money in the long run. Small grants also enable you to get out into the field to collect preliminary data, even if it is only for a month or two at a time. This will go a long way for showing bigger funders that you are doing what is necessary to test methods and make predictions.

Thought 4: Consider your academic ancestors

I always dread beginning to look for funding opportunities. There is no worse feeling than finding a great funding opportunity and then learning that the deadline for submission is only three days away and you need more than one recommendation letter for the application. I’ve found that a useful strategy for staying informed on potential opportunities (other than seeking the advice of GradFund) is to consider what other people in your position have done in the past. For me, this meant that in the summer before I started at Rutgers, I looked up the CVs of my advisor, his current and former graduate students, and anyone else doing cultural or environmental research in Mongolia and made a list of the funding opportunities all of these people were successful with. Then I looked up each individual grant or fellowship, made a list of when the deadlines were, and developed a game plan for when I’d work on the applications. Just from doing that, I was able to come up with a decent list of opportunities to apply for.

I hope that these ideas will be as helpful for you as they were for me. If there’s money out there to be had, why not apply for it? You need to be in it to win it, and if you don’t make an effort to apply, then who is to blame? Is it really the vagaries of the academic job market, the difficulties of earning a PhD in a timely manner, and the lack of funding opportunities holding you back or are YOU holding YOU back? If a loud mouthed Bronx kid can do it, then so can you!

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