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Tom Barnes and Chris Sneden have written an excellent review on writing proposals for graduate students, but their suggestions apply to all proposal writing. "Hints for Writing Successful Observing Proposals" can be found on the McDonald Observer's home page;

Hints for Writing Successful Observing Proposals

Tom Barnes & Chris Sneden—May 2000
Graduate Students, Faculty, Research Staff
Dissertation Research with McDonald Facilities; Hints for Writing Successful Observing Proposals

In the past few days some questions have arisen about the McDonald TAC policies for observing proposals that are related to graduate students' PhD research. It has been some time since these policies have been broadcast widely. Now is also a good occasion for all of us to be reminded of how to write proposals to which the TAC will respond well.


First, here is the relevant sentence in the description of TAC procedures (last updated in February, 2000):
"Members are asked to recognize the importance of graduate education at UT Austin and other institutions by adjusting rankings for dissertation proposals as appropriate (usually done in the TAC meeting)."
The TAC will be reminded of this and other scheduling considerations when considering each round of proposals.

We would like to re-emphasize that McDonald wants to encourage student research! But proposals from students, like anyone else, should conform to common sense. For a rumored historical (bad) example, how about this one: a prominent extragalactic researcher is alleged to have requested the entire amount of KPNO 4m dark time for a year when that instrument was newly commissioned. Get the point? Be realistic.

To assist students in assessing the realism in dissertation observing time requirements, first and foremost the students' PhD committees should be consulted. But the McDonald Director and Associate Director will also be happy to discuss students' observing needs, and can often make good guesses as to the likelihood that those needs can be met within other scheduling constraints.


Getting observing time at McDonald has not been much of a problem recently, but as the HET ramps up its operations we expect a higher competition level to emerge. Thanks to Inese Ivans, who surfed the web for proposal guidelines from major observatories around the world, we offer below three sets of hints that might be of use to you. Notice the general agreement among the different guideline statements, and pay heed.

Here are the web addresses for various observing proposal guidelines:

And below are parts of three of the most helpful suggestions:


Historically, the TAC has focused on a few major areas of concern, virtually independent of changes in committee membership. The first and foremost of these is, of course, scientific merit. Because the committee is rather small and must cover a wide range of astrophysical expertise, it is essential that proposals make very clear just what scientific questions will be addressed by the proposed observations. The committee often wishes to see these goals placed in a larger context; i.e., how these questions relate to major unresolved astrophysical questions.


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3 November 2003
McDonald Observatory · The University of Texas at Austin · Austin, Texas 78712
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