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:
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.
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:
Here are some suggestions of good topics to give you an idea what you should strive for:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
What you intend to do may be clear to you, but not to the reviewer. Explain what and how you are going to do.
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.
The reviewers are interested in very particular information about your proposal, and you should not make them wait.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!