How to Write a Research Proposal in Astronomy: All You Need to Know about This Type of Work

Writing guide
Posted on July 14, 2020

A research proposal is a document that details the specifics of a research problem and justifies the need to study it. In addition, it provides a contextual background for future research and offers practical ways in which it can be carried out. In other words, its main purposes are:

  • To identify what you intend to research;
  • To persuade the reader that it is worth studying;
  • To show that the research itself is viable (i.e., it meets a certain expense/return ratio);
  • To demonstrate that you are capable of carrying it out and have a sound plan.

You should remember that serious research in astronomy is not something you can do at home with nothing but your computer. It requires the use of expensive equipment that may not be easily available, which means that you will need funding. As a result, you have to be extra careful in the formulation of your goals and applicable methods. Aim for balance between the expenses and potential results.

How to Write a Research Proposal in Astronomy: What to Do before You Start

1. Choose a Topic

The right choice of topic may not be a half of your success, but it is certainly close. Many people will not even read the rest of the proposal if they consider its topic to be inappropriate, overly ambitious or pointless. You can increase your chances by following these principles:

  • Be focused. Astronomy is a highly precise science that values focus and concentration. Usually you can find plenty to work with even when dealing with the narrowest research questions. So pick a very specific area and stick to it without going off on a tangent;
  • Choose a topic you can easily navigate. Remember, you are going to perform deep research in it, trying to find out things you did not know before. If you have to learn the basics of the topic beforehand, any research proposal becomes rather unrealistic by definition;
  • Study the sources before you start writing. Astronomy is a complex subject where you are heavily dependent on the research done by other authors before you. No matter how brilliant your individual work is, you have to build it within the context of the existing body of research. If there is not enough to build on, you will have problems finding relevant sources to back yourself up. If the topic has already been extensively covered, there is not much sense in writing about it again.

Here are some suggestions of good topics to give you an idea what you should strive for:

  • Calculating the Size, Age and Expansion Rates of a Supernova;
  • Mapping the Andromeda Periphery;
  • Types of Planets to Measure with the Giant Magellan Telescope;
  • Common Patterns in the Recent Data on Newly Discovered Exoplanets;
  • Cosmology Based on the Kepler Extragalactic Survey.

2. Gather Your Sources

The context of research is an incredibly important aspect of any research proposal. Before you commit yourself to writing, you have to be sure the topic has a sufficient body of research for you to build upon.

Start with asking your supervisor about the literature he/she can suggest. Consult your librarian, especially if you have a dedicated librarian for the astronomy section. Prepare a list of keywords related to your topic and look for works using them in their titles through one of online academic databases (both general purpose ones like Google Scholar, EBSCO and more specialized resources like Astrophysics Data System).

3. Evaluate the Sources

The quality of sources varies dramatically, and it can be difficult to figure out whether you can trust a particular text or not. However, you can significantly improve your chances of sticking to reliable sources if you follow certain guidelines.

  • Be wary of online resources. Printed sources follow quality standards imposed by peer review, libraries, publishers and editors, while information found online is not reviewed or monitored by anyone. This does not mean that printed sources are better by definition – you simply have to be extra cautious when using an online source;
  • Check each source using five criteria:
    • Authority – does the author have the necessary credentials? Is he/she qualified enough to write about the topic?
    • Accuracy/quality – is the information verifiable? What did the author base his/her conclusions on? Is the methodology sound?
    • Objectivity – does the author or publisher have their own agenda? Does he/she have reasons to promote a particular point of view?
    • Currency – how old is the source? Were there any important publications on this subject since then?
    • Coverage – does the source adequately cover the topic?

4. Prepare a Literature Review and Identify the Gap in Research

While you look for sources and read them, make as many notes as is reasonably possible. Summarize the contents, purposes and findings of each paper relevant to your chosen area of interest. Your purpose is to find a subject that was not researched sufficiently, either at all or using a particular method. When you find one, you can use it as a foundation of your proposal.

5. Identify a Problem and Write a Purpose Statement

After you identify the gap in existing research, it is time to formulate the problem you are going to research. It may be a particular astronomical object you want to observe in a way it was not observed before, or an application of a methodology in an unusual way, or anything at all that can demonstrate the novelty of your research and its potential importance for the research area and astronomy in general.

How to Write a Research Proposal: What Information It Should Contain

1. Context

Give the broader picture of the issue. What other research exists on this topic and other related subjects? How does it benefit the progress of astronomy? Why is it important?

2. Required Resources

List all the assets you are going to need to carry out your research and how much funding you are going to need. Be realistic about it – neither under- nor overrate anything.

3. Your Qualifications

Make it obvious that you know what you are doing. List the necessary skills you have. If you do not have them, mention how you are going to acquire them within the time scope of the research. Mention references to your relevant works, if you have any, but clarify their basic contents right here – the reviewer should not have to look for the work you refer to in order to check your qualifications and understand your meaning.

4. Scientific Problem

Clearly state the scientific problem your research is supposed to solve. Why is it important to do it? How does it mesh with the existing research in the field? What further research can it lead to? Address the “So what?” and “Why do this at all?” questions as early as possible.

5. Your Proposition

What you intend to do may be clear to you, but not to the reviewer. Explain what and how you are going to do.

6. Feasibility Study

That your research can be completed within the allotted timeline and budget should not be just your opinion. Perform a feasibility study proving that it is possible and present its results.

How to Write a Research Proposal in Astronomy: Writing and Structuring

1. Answer the Important Questions Early On

The reviewers are interested in very particular information about your proposal, and you should not make them wait.

  • What do you propose to do, what results will it bring, how much will it cost, how long will it take?
  • What difference will it make for your field and astronomy in general?
  • What methodology do you intend to use?
  • What has already been done in your area of research?
  • How can the results of this research be evaluated?
  • Why do you believe yourself to be the best fit for the project?

2. Be Realistic

Expect that at least some of the reviewers have experience in your field. If you promise more than you can achieve (in general, or in the time you offer to complete the research), they will decrease your rating.

3. Be Concise

If the proposal has a word limit, do not exceed it under any circumstances. Do not treat it as a leave to use that many words – the shorter your proposal is, the greater will be the effect it produces on the reviewers. Only state what is necessary. When writing a new sentence, ask yourself if you can do without it. If you cannot do without some auxiliary information (e.g., detailing some specialized skill or knowledge you have that is necessary for this research), place it in the appendix.

4. Read and Follow the Instructions

Astronomy departments tend to be very serious with the research they carry out, and this seriousness spills over to the paperwork associated with it. Most of what you need to do about your research proposal is listed and described in the instructions. Everything that is mentioned in instructions is not a recommendation but, indeed, an instruction. Follow them religiously. Reread and study them multiple time lest you make mistakes. Consult your supervisor if anything seems doubtful.

5. Pay Attention to Formatting

This primarily concerns the font type and size. Size limitations for research proposals are often listed in pages, not words. Do not try to use a smaller font to fit more text on a page. Firstly, if you have trouble fitting your proposal within the allotted space, you are doing something wrong (see Tip 2). Secondly, reviewers will hate your proposal at first sight – nobody likes reading with a magnifying glass.

How to Write a Research Proposal in Astronomy: What to Do after the Writing

1. Remove the Superfluous

Reviewers will appreciate it if you are concise and to the point. They have to deal with numerous research proposals whose authors believe their ideas to be the best astronomy has seen since Copernicus and thus happily rant on every little detail. Do not repeat this mistake. The reviewers will not read your proposal in rapt attention. They will scan the text as quickly as possible, trying to figure out the gist with minimal effort. If you make yourself hard to understand, they will get annoyed.
Therefore, eliminate everything you do not absolutely need to get your message across. Simplify your language. E.g., use “consider” instead “take into consideration”. Do not go off on a tangent, stick strictly to the topic of your proposal.

2. Check the Text for Consistency

Make sure you use tenses, voice and style consistently throughout your proposal. Constantly jumping from active to passive voice or from first to third person not only looks jarring, but also annoys the reviewers – they often correlate sloppy writing with poor science.

3. Be Careful with Proofreading

Even if it is not true in your case, reviewers tend to associate poor grammar and spelling with poor science. Do not expect to be taken seriously if you cannot be bothered to proofread even your proposal.

  • Take some time off before proofreading. When you are too used to the text, you tend to miss more mistakes;
  • Proofread one sentence at a time, from the end to the beginning. This will allow you to focus on individual words and sentence structure rather than the text as a whole;
  • Focus on one type of mistakes at a time (grammar, spelling, punctuation, incorrect abbreviations, etc.);
  • Read the text aloud. This will slow you down and preclude from skipping over over-familiar parts of the text.

4. Get an Outside Opinion

Ask at least one trusted and well-qualified peer to review your proposal and point out its strong and weak points. Revise the text according to these comments, especially if more than one person says the same thing.

Preparing a research proposal in a precise science like astronomy may seem a monumental task; but if you follow the right procedure, you will be able to handle it!

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