Ph.D.​, Rutgers University

Thomas Conte: I entered my PhD program with a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do my dissertation research on

Interviewed by Nowreen

Interviewer’s note: Thanks Thomas for sharing your story and experiences as a doctoral student at Rutgers University. Hopefully, this will give some insight about the graduate life in this University to the incoming/prospective students.

Thomas Conte

Ph.D. Student

Rutgers University

I am a third-year Ph.D. student at Rutgers University studying evolutionary anthropology. My dissertation research focuses on the evolution of human social behavior, particularly cooperation and sharing behaviors. The dissertation project centers on nomadic livestock herders in northern Mongolia, and I am particularly interested in how natural disasters such as severe winter storms and droughts affect individual families’ willingness and ability to share labor and resources with one another.

Being paid to do interesting social science research is my favorite part of being a Rutgers graduate student. The department is also very friendly and welcoming.

A little bit about me

I was born and raised in The Bronx, New York, and have always had an interest in science, history, and culture.

A city like New York was an easy place to gain exposure to different perspectives and backgrounds and my parents would frequently take me to centers like the American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All of these experiences helped fuel my interest in both science and the humanities and to lay the foundation for what would one day become a career in social science research.

As an undergraduate, I made a six-month-long, abortive attempt at majoring in business administration. I figured that I might as well do something practical that would lead me to “a real job” one day. My business classes and electives didn’t interest me much, however, and I began to search for an alternative major, which I quickly found in anthropology. I loved the combination of the humanities and the scientific method anthropology offered: I loved the fact that I didn’t need to work in a lab but could also apply the scientific method and hypothesis testing to real-world human interactions. I was hooked from my first anthropology class.

In my junior year of undergraduate, I studied abroad in China and gained an interest in East Asian history and culture. I was particularly interested in China’s Mongolian ethnic minority and got an opportunity to study Mongolian environmental values and land-use practices. From there, I traveled to the Republic of Mongolia in 2009 and have been going back ever since.

In September 2016, I conducted a year of research among nomadic herders in northern Mongolia. During this time, I’ve learned about social interactions among nomads and how sharing and cooperative norms are affected by natural disasters. I have also participated in two 100 kilometer nomadic migrations across the Sayan Mountain Range. The fact that I am being paid to do this as a career is simply mind-boggling​ to me!

Why I chose Rutgers University

I chose Rutgers University for a variety of factors, both personal and professional.

First and foremost, I was attracted to the evolutionary anthropology program because it focuses on quantitative social science methods, hypothesis testing, and the scientific method. I find a lot of value in collecting data and using methods that are broadly applicable, replicable, and comparative.

At the same time, Rutgers is also well known for our cultural anthropology program where I have received training in some of the more “traditional” anthropological methods: qualitative interviews and ethnography. And so, Rutgers offers a great combination of training opportunities in both quantitative and qualitative social science methods.

Second, I chose Rutgers because of the academic advisor I am working with. His research focuses on pastoralism and cooperative behavior in East Africa and is very similar to my work in Mongolia. I think it’s extremely important to find a graduate advisor that you enjoy working with on both a personal and professional level.

As a scientist or researcher, especially in the long haul of graduate school, it is so important to have a supportive environment. I have definitely found this at Rutgers. On a personal level, Rutgers also offered a convenient location for me to be close to my family and friends. Graduate school and academia often require you to move around, and Rutgers offered a great location for me to be close to my family and for my wife to be close to her current job in New York.

My research area: studying the effects of climate change 

As I mentioned above, my research centers on studying the effects of climate change and natural disasters on cooperation among Mongolian nomads. Often, when I talk about this research topic with non-academic individuals, they wonder why I would choose Mongolia as an area of focus.

The short answer to this is: “because it’s an amazingly interesting place to work,” but there is also a practical, scientific rationale behind my choice as well. I’m interested in studying both the dynamics of human cooperation and how these dynamics are strained or enhanced by the presence of economic and environmental stressors.

Much of the previous research on human cooperative behavior suggests that cooperation may have offered our earliest ancestors an advantage in dealing with variable environments and resource scarcity. Therefore, the reason that humans are one of the most cooperative social species may be at least partially rooted in the fact that our ancestors needed to coordinate subsistence activities and provide assistance to one another to survive times of scarcity or natural disasters.

While it’s difficult to study cooperation in our earliest ancestors through the limited fossil and material records they left behind, we are fortunate in being able to study how modern humans cooperate and how cooperation in affected by or maintained during negative climatic events. Mongolia offers an excellent place to do this kind of work because nomadic herders live in small groups and are highly dependent on natural grassland resources to sustain their livestock.

Coupled with this, Mongolia is one of the epicenters of global climate change and is highly susceptible to drought and severe winter storms. My research focuses on a community of nomadic herders living very close to the Russian border in Mongolia’s Darhad Valley. These nomads move between four and eight times a year to new pastures and make most of their living from selling cashmere and wool. This area of Mongolia is particularly susceptible to severe winter conditions, known as zud in Mongolia, which causes severe snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures. When zud occurs, they can cause the death of large numbers of livestock from starvation or exposure. This loss of livestock can lead to economic destitution in many herding families.   Traditionally, herders have managed zud through a combination of state social support and cooperation with neighbors and kin. My research project focuses on the dynamics of this cooperation and how herders share labor and resources to prepare for and recover from zud.   My intention is that this project will help social scientists and policymakers​ gain a better understanding of how human social behavior responds to environmental risks. This information will not only be relevant to our understanding of human cooperative behavior but can also be useful to policymakers​, who aim to design better systems for mitigating the effects of natural disasters both in Mongolia and elsewhere.

I entered my PhD program with a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do my dissertation research on. This is probably because I had already attended a terminal masters program at another school rather than entering my PhD program right out of undergraduate.

Life as a graduate student

Is it hard being a graduate student? Yes and no. On the one hand, yes, you get the same time off as an undergraduate would. You’re in your mid to late twenties and you still have a summer vacation. Who could complain?

On the other hand, being a graduate student has caused major headaches for me on a personal and professional level. First, as I mentioned above, the money is not great, and it was particularly tough to make long-term financial plans and to plan a wedding during my second year in the program.

On a relationship level, it has also been difficult. I am married to a non-academic who is not accustomed to the fact that anthropologists often need to go abroad for extended periods of time to collect the data we need. While my wife has known about my Mongolia research for over five years, my upcoming year abroad has been a two thousand pound elephant in the room ever since I told her about it years ago. She is not happy about it but understands why I need to do it. Needless to say, it is a major source of stress for both of us, and we’re looking forward to me getting it done so we can move forward from here.

On a professional level, as I mentioned above, graduate school is a long slog with very unclear outcomes. You will work very hard and not necessarily see immediate returns on the time and energy you invest. It is also sometimes difficult to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. When you’re working on a small component of your degree program, you can become lost in getting it done and not immediately see that it is part of a much bigger whole. I have found a good strategy for dealing with these kinds of feelings is to simply step back and re-ask yourself the questions you asked when you decided to go to graduate school. “Am I interested in this? Do I want to teach and do research professionally? Where do I see myself in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years?” This can really help put you back in perspective.

In terms of what to focus on other than courses and research, I would recommend devoting at least some of your time to recreation and forming lasting relationships with other people in your program and friends you already have. For me, this means exercising in the gym, devoting time to spend with my wife, family, and friends, and doing other things I enjoy like outdoor sports.

Funding and/or scholarships as a Graduate Student

I am a domestic student in the U.S., and because of this, my funding situation is a bit different than if I was an international student. Although Rutgers offers the same funding packages to both international and domestic students, there are some external funding opportunities that are available to only domestic students.

For my dissertation research in Mongolia, I have been fairly fortunate in my funding applications and have received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright IIE Fellowship, and the American Center for Mongolian Studies.

Is a graduate school stipend enough to live on? Yes…barely. But academia/doctoral studies are not what you should go into if you’re hoping to get rich. A teaching assistant salary is usually enough to cover your most basic needs (food, housing) but not much else. After you’ve advanced to candidacy, though, you can supplement a stipend with extra income from teaching or tutoring. Some programs, however, might not allow this.

Availability of teaching or research assistantship within the Department

Rutgers offers anthropology graduate students a mixture of teaching assistantship and fellowship funding. Funding packages are typically 4-5 years with alternating years of TAship and fellowship. The difference between the two is that TAship provides better health insurance and a slightly higher salary, but requires you to teach or assist a professor in teaching. A fellowship, on the other hand, does not require you to teach and allows you to focus purely on research.

What I like most about being here

Being paid to do interesting social science research is my favorite part of being a Rutgers graduate student. The department is also very friendly and welcoming and I like my fellow graduate students and the faculty.

For negatives, I guess the unpredictability of graduate school can give you some headaches, and this is not something found only in my program. Getting a Ph.D. is a process of jumping through hoops, filling out forms, and working on long-term goals. It is not the degree to pursue if you don’t like to persist through long processes and it is often difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. My institution is also particularly fond of making you fill out paperwork and forms, which I am not a fan of!

My background as an undergraduate student

I went to Fordham University in The Bronx, New York for my undergraduate degree. As I mentioned above, I began as a business administration student but really didn’t care for it. I ended up double majoring in anthropology and international political economy.

The transition to graduate school was only difficult because I worked for a year between finishing my undergraduate degree and beginning my Master’s degree in applied anthropology at Oregon State University. It was very hard to go from having a 9 to 5 and being done with “work” when I left my job to being back in academia where “work” always follows you home.

The transition from my Master’s program to my Ph.D. program was a similar process. The application process is grueling (and expensive), but it was easy to settle into the new program.

Finding a supervisor and settling

At my current program, no, it wasn’t difficult at all and it was easy to simply hit the ground running and begin classes and long-term planning for my dissertation research. My experience may be a bit different from other students, though, because I entered my Ph.D. program with a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do my dissertation research on. This is probably because I had already attended a terminal masters program at another school rather than entering my Ph.D. program right out of undergraduate. So, I think I may have gone through the growing pains of deciding on a topic of interest during my Master’s studies. Overall, it has been a fairly smooth process and I’m content with how things have been going in my program.

Be sure to do your homework when seeking an academic advisor to work with. Having an advisor that I enjoy working with has made my movement through the program both useful and efficient.

My advice for students who wants to enter this field

First, I would make sure that you really enjoy social science research and anthropology. While like-minded individuals will see the value in what you do, there will be people out there who will hear about the work you do and think of you as if you don’t have a “real” job or do anything of value. When those kinds of situations happen to you, you will want to be very clear in your choice to pursue graduate studies in anthropology. If your interest is there, you will always be able to set those individuals straight.

Second, be sure to do your homework when seeking an academic advisor to work with. Having an advisor that I enjoy working with has made my movement through the program both useful and efficient. I can’t stress enough that you should seek out individuals in your area of study and get to know them prior to applying to graduate school. Send them an email or ask them a question. This will help you determine if a particular program or person is right for you.

Third, I would really recommend sitting down at the very beginning of your program and drawing out a tentative plan and a set of goals for yourself as you progress through your program. You should know where you’re going and when you plan to accomplish requirements. For example, it might be helpful to begin planning your first two years of coursework as soon as you arrive. This way you are never confused about what (and why!) you are doing something at a given time.

Standardized tests I had to take

Yes, the GRE, and it was ridiculous. I couldn’t believe that I needed to know high school math at 23 years old.

With all that complaining aside, at least in anthropology, the GRE is one of the least important components of your application. It is important to do as well as you can, of course, but a perfect GRE score might not be as useful to an applicant as a good record of communication with a potential advisor, good research ideas, a good undergraduate/graduate GPA, and an effective personal statement. Remember, of course, that I am talking about anthropology. Things may be different in other fields and the GRE might be weighted higher in admission/funding decisions.

my short-term and long​ term career plans

Because my dissertation research is looming over my head at the moment, my immediate plans post-graduation are a bit unclear at the moment. Graduating is the first concern in my mind right now. With all that said, however, I really love doing research and I really love teaching anthropology. So my long-term goal is to stay in academia and gain a position in teaching, advising graduate students, and working on human behavioral​ ecology research.

What I do in my free time

Do people have free time in graduate school? Just kidding…I really enjoy weight lifting, running, playing tennis, and anything outdoors-related (fishing, hiking, camping, rock climbing). My wife and I also enjoy making our own wine together (and drinking it together too).

Favorite Books

I really enjoy (and am usually a little depressed by) anything by George Orwell. As a genre, I really like historical fiction and non-fiction history as well.

I really like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Seinfeld. Movies: the original Star Wars films (not the new, horrible ones), the original Indiana Jones films (not the new, horrible ones), most Martin Scorcese movies (Goodfellas, Casino, etc.), and lots of comedies.

Additional Information:

If you would like to follow my work or contact me, please check out the following links.

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