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Writing an Observing Proposal. Writing a good observing proposal is challenging because:. You have a committee (many judges) The judges are often not experts in your field

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Writing a good observing proposal is challenging because:

  • You have a committee (many judges)
  • The judges are often not experts in your field
  • The judges always have more than one proposal to read  they have little time to devote to reading your proposal carefully!
  • You often have page limits – you must be to the point
  • You cannot answer the criticism of the referees
  • The decision is final, reversing the decision is impossible
  • You can make a second attempt, but you have to wait 6 months to a year
  • Second attempt: A new set of referees
  • Lower chances because of finite resources (telescope time, money) to allocate. A well-written proposal may still not get accepted

In writing observing proposals or finding proposals you have to learn to deal with failure!

  • Success rates:
  • ESO observing proposal: ~10%
  • Calar Alto: < 10 %
  • McDonald Observatory: >10-20 %

The most probable result is a rejection!


Before you start

  • Think about a good project: the key to a successful proposal is a good idea!
  • Do your research: Know everything that has been done in the field, where your work fits in, and why it is important
  • Think carefully about which targets to observe and how much time you will need
  • Give yourself time to prepare, write, and revise: do not start the week before the deadline!

Types of proposals

  • 1. Easy to get time: a major advance in a field
    • A few observations that prove/refute a theory
    • Observations of a new class of objects
    • Observations that measure an important parameter of a class of objects
  • Examples:
  • Discovery of the first exoplanets
  • Confirming important discoveries
  • Light curves of the first transiting planets
  • Light curves of the first GRBs
  • Redshift of the first GRBs
  • Astrometric determination of the mass of a Brown Dwarf, White Dwarf
  • Mass of Black Holes
  • Records: lowest mass planet, highest redshift quasar/galaxy,

Types of proposals

  • 2. Moderately difficult: a significant advance in a field of well known and well studied objects –
    • Many observations are required
    • Large number of objects that need to be observed
    • Long term project – it lasts several years and you submit several proposals on the same project
  • Examples:
  • Surveys of large number of objects (abundances, redshifts, classes of objects)
  • Exoplanet searches around new classes of objects (e.g. massive stars, planets in clusters, etc.)

For these types of proposals it is essential that you show intermediate results in subsequent proposals. The time allocation committees want to be reassured that you are reducing your data and looking at it.


Types of proposals

  • 3. Extremely difficult: an incremental advance of a well studied field
    • Difficult to convince committees that new knowledge will be obitained
  • Examples:
  • Nore radial velocity detection of planets (700 already known)
  • Another transiting planet (over 150 known)
  • More GRB light curves

It may be good science but the committee may not be convinced that it will provide significant more knowledge to the field.


Types of proposals

  • 4. Forget it: observations of well studied class of objects where you are getting observations with no real goal.
  • Examples:
  • Deriving a binary orbit
  • Measuring stellar parameters of a main sequence star

Keep the referees in mind (1)

Most of the referees have very little or no knowledge of your field. They do not know what has been done, or the importance of your proposed work.

Assume they know nothing, but do not insult their intelligence.

A typical breakdown of the expertise on ESO Panel C:

2 Members: Solar system research (planets: atmospheres and structure, asteroids, comments, satellites)

2 Members: Interstellar medium

2 Members: Star formation

2 Members: Exoplanets (radial velocity, transits, microlensing, astrometry, theory, atmospheres, etc)

Proposal has to be general enough to be understood by the non-experts, but detailed enough so that an expert will not find “show-stopping” faults.


Keep the referees in mind (2)

The referees have many proposals to read, often in less than a month.

Small Observatory (Calar Alto, McDonald): 30-50 proposals

Large Observatory (ESO) : > 100 proposals

A referee does not have time to read your proposal over and over to try to understand what you are doing.

You have to be clear and concise so that the referee understands everything the first time.

If a proposal is easy to read it improves your chances of success


Keep the referees in mind (3)

In the panel review process the referees do not have a lot of time to debate and discuss your proposal.

For example, in the ESO proposal review process 5-10 min are spent:

Review by primary referee

Review by secondary referee

Disussion by panel

Assign a score

During the discussion the non-primary and secondary referees will be looking through your proposal and refreshing their memory. They will have to pick up out the key point quickly during the discussion.


Putting to use everything we have learned

  • 1. A quick look by the referee to see what the proposal is all about
    • Having a good Title and Abstract
  • 2. Getting everything in the page limits
    • Being concise
    • Cut, cut
  • 3. An understanding by the referees of what you propose to do with the first read
    • Short sentences
    • Avoiding redundancy
    • Logical flow of the proposal
    • Stating your goals in clear and simple language
  • 4. The referee being able to find key points of your proposal during the discussions
    • Short paragraphs
    • Key points at the beginning of paragraphs
    • Key points at the beginning and end of sentences
    • Emphasis (bold face, italics, bullets, numbering, etc

The Structure of a proposal

  • 1. Cover page /Title
    • Descriptive title of the project
    • Information on PI, CoIs, telescope, instrument, nights, lunar phase, etc.
  • Science Justification / Science Rationale / Astrophysical Context
    • Background information on the field: what has been done
    • What you propose to do
    • The contribution your proposed observations will make to the field
  • Immediate Objectives / Goals
    • What you will accomplish/find out from your observations

The Structure of a proposal

  • Strategy / Layout of Observations
    • How you will conduct your observations
  • Justification of Time
    • How much telescope time you will need and why. Remember telescope time is oversubscribed by factors of 5-10!
  • Experience / Team
    • Committee needs to be convinced that you are a capable observer, you know how to analyze your data, and that you will publish your results
    • Results from previous observations
  • ESO Strategy for Data Reduction and Analysis
    • The tools are in place for reducing and analysing your data

All of these have to be done in 2-7 pages !



A good title will give the reader quick information about what the project is all about.

Original: Asteroseismology of Ap stars

Revised: Asteroseismology of Ap stars: Confirmation of Difussion Theory

Original: A Search for Planets around A-F stars

Revised: The Dependence of Planet Formation on Stellar Mass: A Search for Planets around A-F stars

Original: Astrometric Measurements of a Binary Brown Dwarf

Revised: The First Dynamical Mass Determination of a Brown Dwarf


Science Justification

In approximately half a page you have to give the entire background of the field as well as justify your observations. Do not take too many short-cuts to fit into the page requirements.

1. Don’t say everything in one sentence:

The roAp stars are a subclass of the chemically peculiar magnetic Ap stars that exhibit p-mode oscillations with periods of 6-15 minutes, whose large spacing can be used to determine basic stellar parameters like mass and radius, and to probe the internal structure of the star.

The roAp stars are a subclass of the chemically peculiar Ap stars. These objects exhibit p-mode oscillations with periods of 6-15 minutes. From the large spacing we can determine such basic stellar parameters like mass and radius as well as probe the internal structure of the star.


Science Justification

2. Assume the reader knows nothing about your field. Give the necessary background information and avoid “buzz words”

The roAp stars are a subclass of the chemically peculiar Ap stars. These objects exhibit p-mode oscillations with periods of 6-15 minutes. From the large spacing we can determine such basic stellar parameters like mass and radius as well as probe the internal structure of the star.

A referee would ask: “What is an Ap star, an roAp star? What is a chemically peculiar star? What are p-mode oscillations? What the heck is a large spacing?

Approximately 15% of main-sequence A-type stars have a strong magnetic field

(~ kilogauss) whose axis is inclined to that of the stellar rotation axis. These objects, known as Ap stars, show chemical peculiarities of iron peak and rare earth elements that can be overabundant by factors of 10000 compared to normal stars. A subclass of the Ap stars are the rapidly oscillating Ap (roAp) stars that exhibit stellar p-mode (pressure is the restoring force) with periods of 6-15 min. P-mode oscillations have modes that are equally spaced in frequency defined by the so-called large separation. This spacing is related to the mean density of the star

from which fundamental stellar parameters like radius and mass can be derived. The p-mode oscillations can also be used to model the internal structure of the star.


Science Justification

3. GIve important information in the proposal, do not just refer to papers.

The referee does not have time to go look up papers to understand what you are doing

One of the leading theories for the explanation of the abundance anomolies in Ap stars is the diffusion mechanism (Michaud 1970)