How to write a proposal

A friend of mine contacted me recently to ask for help on writing a research proposal, and I said I’d send her an e-mail about it… But after thinking about this carefully, it might be better to make this advice publicly available. Writing a proposal is a vital skill for anyone planning on working in academia, and it’s one which seemingly takes a while to master.

proposal-writing-2I ought to say upfront – I am no expert. While I must have been reasonably successful to win a postdoc fellowship, I’m sure there will be areas where my advice is lacking. I would welcome any advice from those more experienced on the matter, as I most definitely have a lot to learn. On the flipside, given that I’m, once again, applying for postdoc fellowships and hopefully soon to start attempting to apply for large grants as a principal investigator, consolidating my knowledge this way might help me out too. This is a selection of things which I’ve considered, things I’ve found out, and advice I’ve been given.

So, in no particular order, here are several tips for any early career researcher trying to write a research proposal…

Know Your Aims

Consider what research topic you want to look into. Take a look at what you enjoy (and don’t enjoy) and ask yourself where you’d like to go next. If you really enjoy the subject you’ve been working on previously, you may way to focus more closely on something you’ve looked at before. You may want to take a step to one side and examine something but from a different angle. You may choose to take a step forward and use something from your existing work to progress and look at whatever topic you think should come next.

Alternatively, you may have decided that for whatever reason, this subject isn’t for you. And that’s ok too. Examine what tricks and techniques you’ve learned and see how they may apply to another topic. Look at how to bridge the gap and progress from where you are to where you’d like to end up. For example, if you’ve been using spectroscopic techniques to look at interstellar matter, it’s not too much of a jump to use the same kind of techniques to look at planet formation. The trick is to see somewhere you can use your own skillset, and consider how you might be able to work on that method.

Additionally, go and read the literature. Any good idea has probably been had before. But that doesn’t mean that it’s been published. And if it has been published, it doesn’t mean it’s been explored fully. Go and look to see if anyone else has had your idea. If they haven’t, cool, you can move in and make it yours (reviewers like words such as “novel” and “innovative”). If they have, not to worry. Read anything published and see if you can find an interesting side to it which hasn’t been fully investigated.

Know Your Research Field and Connect

It really pays to know who does what in your field. Who’s connected to whom, and who has research interests which match your own. This is where any conferences and research visits you may have been to will come in handy. Hopefully, you met some people or were introduced to some people, and you can contact them to ask if they’d be interested in working with you as a postdoc.

Alternatively, if you don’t know anyone working in that area, all is not lost. Finding someone who’s working on your chosen topic shouldn’t be too hard. Look at the names in author lists on papers. Check the department staff pages on University websites. Look at the listed contributors (especially invited speakers) in conference attendance lists and proceedings. Then write a simple e-mail. It doesn’t need to be exceptionally well thought out or eloquent. Just be polite, and explain yourself. You’ll be surprised how often people will get back to you.

proposal-writing-3And remember, most university faculty are unlikely to say no to an additional researcher. Particularly if you’ll be applying for a fellowship and therefore hope to arrive with your own source of funding. It’s likely that everyone will benefit from this. In an ideal case, an academic will be quite happy to send you copies of their recent publications and/or review articles which you can use to try and find a research idea which fits with what they work on. Then you can work together to develop the idea further.

Of course, there is one reason for them to say no and that’s if your research interests are too far mismatched with theirs – in which case you’d be better off finding someone else to work with anyway. You can always ask if they know anyone who’d be interested.

Find Your Topic

Remember. You are a unique scientist with a unique set of skills, ideas, and abilities. Even if a subject has been covered before, it won’t have been covered in the same way you might cover it. Think back to those aims I was talking about before, and those papers you read while investigating your idea. Here’s where they become extra useful, and you try and graduate your idea into a full hypothesis.

Any well written paper should make its findings clear. It should draw conclusions, and possibly make references to future work. Here’s where you need to think laterally, and if you don’t worry too much about it, it can be the fun part. Look at the conclusions and consider how they could be applied elsewhere. Consider how you could use another example and further test their hypothesis to see if it works.

As an example, my Fellowship here in Tokyo was based on the results of a single paper from over 10 years ago, and another one from 3 years ago. They were good results, but they only covered a single planetary nebula and hadn’t been followed up much by anyone else. My proposal simply took that idea and applied it to a whole catalogue of archived data. It was a good idea, based on solid, published material, and it’s been quite successful as a result.

Make a Xanatos Gambit

A Xanatos Gambit is actually a plot device used in movies and comic books, but it applies pretty well to proposal writing. The gambit works because whoever plays it has considered everything carefully and chosen to take an action where every possible outcome benefits them. If you can plan your proposal the right way, you should try to do the same. You have one main aim, and proving this aim is your primary objective. But what if you can’t prove it? What if you disprove it? What if something else happens? What if you can’t get the data you need?

You need to ideally have a contingency plan for these outcomes. With a scientific research proposal, this means that any outcome should give you a result which you can either learn from, or publish. This is why you construct a null hypothesis in case you disprove your idea. Why you should establish potential upper and lower limits in case your data is insufficient to prove your idea. Why you should consider other possible hypotheses, in case you get an unexpected result.

In short, if you can win even when you fail, you have a solid proposal.

Choose your Working Environment

proposal-writing-1These things require you to stretch your brain into all kinds of shapes. Sometimes you may find that sitting at a desk and staring at a screen isn’t the best way to go about it. If you find yourself failing to make headway, try a change of environment. Take your laptop to a café or find a sunny park bench. Maybe curl up on a sofa with some music in the background. See if that helps. If you’re anything like me, you probably find yourself getting easily distracted or restless while you’re writing something like this, so try and make yourself comfortable and you’ll be less inclined to try and find somewhere else to get away to.

Proposal Construction

Remember that whoever read this will have a stack of similar ones to read through, so try and make your proposal stand out in some way. I’ve been advised before that a well chosen figure on your front page will make it a lot more memorable. Remember to pay attention to your abstract. Some people like to split their abstract into short sub-sections for for things like Context, Aims and Methods, and Expected Outcomes.

State clearly what it is you intend to do with your proposal. You could try stating a few questions which you specifically aim to address with your work. Then go on to elaborate on how you intend to do this.

Finally, be certain to read the instructions. Sometimes you’ll be allowed a 10 page limit to your proposal. Other times, you’ll only be allowed 3. This varies depending on who exactly is awarding your funding. Remember to stay within the limit. Also, if you’re asked to discuss specific sections, such as including a researcher profile describing yourself and your host researcher, or details on how your work fits with a research institute’s goals, be certain to do so. Otherwise, you’ll only be proving that you didn’t read the instructions properly.

I think I’ve written plenty for now, but this post is likely to be a work in progress as I get advice from other people and learn more about how to make things work. In the meantime, I hope this helps someone…

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What’s your favourite kind of rain…?

Water water, but not everywhere...

Cosmic Funnies is an adorable little comic made by Jaqueline Moliner, and this one caught my eye in particular. Planetary Rain. All about the different kinds of rain that falls on different planets. There are even a couple of exoplanets in there. If you like your science overflowing with cuteness, you should go and take a look!

Neptune is so bling.

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Welcome to the Future

It’s finally here!!


In 1989, goofy sci fi movie Back to the Future 2 saw hapless protagonists travel to the distant faraway time of… 2015! Regrettably hoverboards, Mr Fusion machines, and holographic cinemas haven’t happened yet. Though a few things did actually come true, like tablet computers, wearable tech, and video phone calls. Maybe that movie was pretty insightful after all. Don’t forget, in 1989 most people didn’t know what the internet was. Right now, there’s a good chance you’re reading this on a touchscreen pocket-sized computer. The world has… changed somewhat.

In the meantime, here’s a little message (found on Tumblr) from Doc Brown for all of you kids at home.







Thanks Doc.

The original video is here, if you’d like to see it…

Happy Back to the Future Day!

Well ok, there is a kind of hoverboard actually being worked on. But You’re not going to see one on the street anytime soon.

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10 Planets

Humanity has accomplished an impressive amount of solar system exploration. Especially given that it wasn’t too long ago that we knew next to nothing about the other planets in orbit around the Sun, we now have high resolution images and maps of our neighbouring worlds. This year has finally given us closeup views of both Ceres and Pluto, meaning that I can make this:

The worlds of our solar system

These are slices of 10 of the planets (yes, and dwarf planets) in orbit around the Sun. What a time to be alive.

I also made one in Japanese. また、日本語で。




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Martian Sunset

Martian sunset

Carrying on with the sunrise/sunset theme, here is a gorgeous sunset on Mars over the Gale crater, captured by Curiosity’s mastcam on sol 956 (April 15th, 2015) of its mission on the surface of our neighbouring world. Curious about why sunsets are blue on Mars? I wrote a little something about that a while back.

I’d love to see a blue sunset on Mars someday. It’s probably not going to happen but hey, I can dream, right?

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The Star in the Sky

Discovered courtesy of Tumblr once more, are a set of pretty amazing visualisations originally from Halcyon Maps showing how drastically the sizes of stars can vary. These show how the view would appear from Earth if you replaced the Sun with a different star. As it happens, it varies a lot!

Everyone loves a good sunset, right?

Tiny, tiny Barnard's Star. Maybe too dim to give you a good sunset.

Earth is actually a lot further from the Sun than any of the planets known to orbit Gliese 581 are from their parent star.

Tau Ceti looks rather like it might make a good home for humanity someday. Assuming no one lives there already. It has at least 5 planets too, so we think!

And now I have the Star Wars music in my head again...

Sirius is younger than the Sun and about twice as massive. Remember to wear sunscreen when you visit!


There are some more on Halcyon Maps, where you can also buy prints!

Interestingly, while this shows the difference between star sizes, it’s not so accurate if you wanted the planet to be habitable. Halcyon Maps point out that this is just a concept because liquid water would never exist on planets with views like most of these. A Bit More Detail picks up on this too. The funny thing about habitable zones is that larger stars are brighter and put out more radiation, so habitable planets would be further away.

Interestingly, if an actual habitable planet were in orbit around a red giant star like Arcturus, the star would appear much smaller than the Sun, but much brighter. A little point of light so intensely bright that it can illuminate the whole sky. It’s a little difficult to imagine how it might look. The habitable zone is just that much further away from the star itself.

Conversely, in the habitable zone of a red dwarf, the star would loom, huge overhead. A dim but dramatic presence in the sky. It may seem disconcerting to creatures like us, but a planet under a red dwarf sun would likely also be tidally locked, meaning the Sun would never move from its position in the sky. It would hang eternally in the same spot. No sunrises and no sunsets.

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Do you feel small yet...?

Discovered on Tumblr. The Milky Way is around 100000 light years in diameter, meaning that 200 light years makes about 0.002% of the Milky Way’s diameter. Perhaps the answer to Fermi’s Paradox is simply that others are out there, but word of them has not yet arrived…

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The Geoff Marcy affair: Our failure as a community

This past week has been a very difficult one for the astronomical community. And I’ve been watching the whole mess unravel on Twitter. It hasn’t been pretty. But it needs to be told, and we need to shift the focus. It’s not all about the man at the centre of the storm. It’s about those who were hurt by him and the effects they had to bear. It’s also about all of us and how this affects us as a whole, and what we can do to change things.

In a nutshell, the discussion was kicked off by news that Geoff Marcy, a well known exoplanet astronomer, was the subject of a six month investigation by UC Berkeley into sexual harassment. Over the course of a decade! Based on commentary from those who were emboldened by this enough to come forward, it’s been going on even longer. He was formally found guilty as charged, but UC Berkeley seemed unwilling to give him any kind of disciplinary action or consequences, while seemingly giving no attention to the women who were victimised. His own apology left something to be desired, quite honestly. UC Berkeley itself is already under federal investigation for its poor handling of these matters, prompting little faith in their abilities. This immediately prompted an outcry of fury from astronomers across the world who, quite rightly, called for him to be fired from his post. The final word is that Marcy has resigned his post at UC Berkeley, despite the inevitable deniers, and blind defence of him. But the thing is, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

To date, thousands of astronomers from across the world have signed a petition of support for Marcy’s victims. Whether you’re a professor, an undergrad student, a citizen scientist, or an enthusiastic amateur, if you consider yourself a part of astronomy then please do sign the form yourself. It only takes a moment and letting people know that others care truly is important.

I will freely confess to being something of an idealist. I love the astronomical community, and I love being a part of it. Since stepping into my career in science, I’ve travelled to remarkable locations, participated in exciting discussions, and met many wonderful, diverse people. There are many more who I’ve never met in person. People who’ve inspired me, who’ve helped me, advised me, and supported me. Honestly, we have a pretty wonderful community here, which I hope to continue contributing to for some time to come; I want to give something back. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realise something else. At the heart of our community is something rotten. Something which has been ignored and allowed to fester and, as a result, has developed into a sickness. Ironically, it seems that what we really need is a doctor.

Conveniently enough, I know quite a number of doctors. Here are some!

Redacted username

(Username for that last tweet is redacted due to the person involved having recently locked their account, which is concerning in itself.)

The thing is that this actually hurts us all. We can’t allow toxic individuals to uncaringly damage our community like this. Many people will hear of this story and will only take home the message that an important scientist had to resign and how that’s “a great loss”. It’s not. The great loss is the – I’m going to guess – thousands of women and minorities who have been forced out of science because of Marcy and people like him. Every single one of them knows something which you and I don’t. Every single one of them was, and still is, full of potential. Every single one of them could have continued to be even greater than those important scientists who everyone likes to applaud. But instead they had to deal with emotional stress and trauma affecting their work, and many chose the easier option of leaving for greener pastures. And I don’t blame them. I wish them all the best. But they shouldn’t have had to take that option, and the fact that they were driven to it is our fault. Our failure as a community.

Marcy is an example here, of two things. He is an example of someone who’s been known for toxic behaviour for a long, long time. Aside from the genuinely shocking behaviour in the UC Berkeley investigation, there are a lot of women with stories about him which range from unsettling creepiness to all out assault. The worst part is that this was no secret. Apparently, everyone knew about this but chose not to speak of it. This part is just horrifying. That’s quite an elephant to be keeping in the room. More hearteningly though, he’s an example of the fact that no star, no matter how prominent, is too high to fall.

But Marcy and his behaviour isn’t the only elephant in this particularly crowded room. There are many who have harassed and assaulted women in our community, going about their business as if nothing had happened while leaving traumatised victims in their wake. There are others at lower levels whose behaviour is no less offensive who, seeing those higher up receiving no comeuppance, feel that their toxic behaviour is validated. Most of these people feel that there isn’t even anything wrong with their despicable behaviour. Off-the-record conversations between women on who to avoid at conferences and whose research group you’d be better off not working in are all too common. No less common than the men whose behaviour more than justifies those conversations. These people are amongst us, making no efforts to hide. If you work in astronomy, you almost certainly know some of them!

If you open your eyes, you’ll see that it’s everywhere. And it sickens me. I’ve heard friends tell me about entire institutions which they now need to avoid. I’ve seen people at conferences patiently putting up with unwanted attention and conversation. I’ve seen the look of hurt confusion in the eyes of friends as they try to process things which have been said to them. I’ve seen peoples entire dispositions ruined by the actions of an individual who probably thought them inconsequential. I’ve seen people I respect and admire seriously consider leaving the community to escape. I’ve seen others who left. I’ve sat with colleagues who were sobbing with tears over the way they’ve been treated. Enough is enough.

I’m just a postdoc right now. My voice is not yet loud enough to make a difference. But it’s my ambition to run a research group of my own someday. When I do, I want to bring new minds into our community. Minds who, it is my genuine hope, will continue to surpass me in every conceivable way. These people may be of any gender, sexuality, or ethnic background. I do not want to bring people enthusiastically into a career where they’ll be endlessly ground down by harassment, assault, creepiness, or microaggressions from people who they’re supposed to be looking up to. I don’t want to watch people fail to meet their potential due to things which they should not have to put up with. I’m know I’m not the only person who feels this way.

To do this, we need a fundamental change in the culture of astronomy. And while this discussion is centred on astronomy, the same is just as true in every aspect of science and research more generally. The sheer volume of headlines this year which are dealing with misogyny and awfulness in science are, honestly, disturbing:

Comes as no surprise that people are leaving, huh?

Attitudes need to change. We need to stop ignoring these things. We need to start making sure people know that abusive behaviour of any kind is not welcome and that we will not tolerate it. Fundamentally, we are a community. We need to take care of our own. We need to cast out toxic individuals. We need to support those who need it. We need to protect people who feel threatened or uncomfortable. To do any less is to fail.

The conversation is ongoing on Twitter under the hashtags #AstroSH and #AstroSA. This discussion has a long way to go…

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Twinkle twinkle little star…

A very interesting thing has been reported this week, provoking a lot of discussion and speculation on Twitter and elsewhere. A star in the Kepler catalog, designated KIC 8462852, appears to be orbited by a bizarre swarm of objects and no one can figure out exactly what they are. Remarkably enough, the idea of alien civilisations and megastructures is being given some serious consideration. Well, that and some despair and a healthy amount of skepticism.

Of course, we shouldn’t go jumping the gun, because there’s far too little evidence to start putting too much faith in that hypothesis. However, there’s too little evidence to rule it out either. Right now, it’s a complete mystery.

Planetary transits are pretty straightforward things. A planet passes in front of its parent star, and the starlight briefly dims. This is the basic principle behind the huge success of the Kepler mission. Planetary transits are predictable, regular, and their light curves are as perfectly symmetric as the planets which cause them.

Here's lookin' at you, kid

This image is the light curve of WASP 28b, a gas giant planet, as it passes in front of its stellar host. It’s as symmetric as you would expect, and it causes the starlight to drop by a small but noticeable 1.5%. Gas giants don’t get much larger than this, even if you pile on the mass, and smaller planets cause correspondingly smaller drops in light. All very simple.

Not so for KIC 8462852. The paper submitted this week shows some light curves and they are all over the shop. Take a look…

How I wonder what you are!

As you can see, these are some pretty weird light curves. I see asymmetric objects (top left panel) and clumpy material (bottom two panels) here, though some of these transits look fairly symmetric too. And some of them cause the starlight to dim by over 20%! So what exactly could cause this?

It’s not planet forming material, because this is an old star and by now any of that would’ve, well, formed into planets. My knee-jerk reaction (one which, it seems, I’m not alone in having) was that this is debris from some kind of huge impact. But that doesn’t fit. An impact would cause a lot of dust around the star, causing a huge excess of infrared light. But there’s no excess infrared being emitted from this star (though some not-entirely-explained patches of debris have been found elsewhere purely at radio frequencies).

Another leading possibility is that it’s a swarm of comets in orbit. Comets do start to puff out a lot of gas when they warm up (the fully extended coma of a warm comet can be about three times the size of Jupiter!), and if there were a lot of them, it may explain the clumpy appearance of these light curves. Taking a look at some spectra from this star during transits could probably prove or disprove that hypothesis. Dust will preferentially scatter light at particular wavelengths. Also, comets are full of molecules and those molecules start to shine brightly when comets warm up. So brightly that there are molecular emission lines named after them – the C₃ molecule was actually first seen in comet spectra. With enough comets to cause a 20% drop in starlight, I’d expect lines like those to show up in the spectrum. However, there would need to be a lot of comets. Alhough a red dwarf companion star lurking nearby may have disrupted enough from the star’s Oort cloud to cause a huge infall, that idea still has problems of its own (depending whether it’s actually a binary companion or just passing through). It’s a possible explanation, and quite a good one, but this hasn’t stopped some sources from already stating it as fact.

The, also premature, discussion going around twitter (stoked somewhat by news outlets) is slightly more exotic. Though I have to say that it’s not entirely infeasible that these weird light curves may be due to alien megastructures.


I know, I know. The moment you even mention the word “alien,” a number of people will immediately start grumbling and shaking their heads. But let’s consider this rationally. Scientifically speaking, we must consider all possibilities. In the words of Conan Doyle, once you eliminate the impossible then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Additionally, by Occam’s razor, the simplest possible explanation is the most likely – specifically, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions of unknown phenomena. In this case, all of the proposed explanations require at least one such assumption. Various ideas have been put forward, but none are without their problems. The Bad Astronomer has a pretty good discussion on this, which I’d advise you to have a look over if you’re interested.

So given that an alien civilisation is actually not much more significant an assumption than an unprecedentedly massive barrage of comets or a coincidental and mysteriously dust free collision, the idea is actually being given some serious consideration in a hypothesis paper recently submitted to the Astrophysical Journal. Also, I should stoically point out that no Oort cloud has ever actually been observed, meaning that both Oort clouds and alien civilisations have exactly the same amount of direct evidence proving their existence. I suspect that statement will earn me no friends, but it’s worth remembering.

In the words of Tabetha Boyajian, lead author from the detection paper, “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.” This paper, which I won’t elaborate on right now, discusses a number of possibilities for astroengineered megastructures, and the prospects we may have for finding these things in transit studies designed to look for planets. Which is rather interesting because, frankly, why shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility?

Of course, it’s best not to get too carried away just yet. There’s a lot of data to be looked over, and followup observations to be made. As much as I like the idea of alien civilisations, it’s much too early to say for certain. In fact, it seems to much too early to say anything for certain.

For now, I’ll leave you with a few words from Eric Mamajek. I caught his presentation during IAU2015 about the discovery of that planet with the gargantuan ring system, so he’s someone who you should definitely listen to on this topic…

(I’m sure that’s exactly what the Vogons want you to think!!!)

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With apologies for slightly mutilating Jhonen Vasquez’s post Comic Con doodle. But honestly, it pretty much sums up how I feel, realising all of the stuff I need to do now I’m home…

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