In which I learn valuable lessons about writing observing proposals, deadlines, and telescope time allocation, reflect on my self doubt, and bat above 500 in my first proposal season.
I suppose it can only go down from here, right? Nearly all the astronomers I know submit tens, hundreds of proposals and have acceptance rates on the order of <10%. That’s natural for our field, expected. In the land of small number statistics, though, I’ve gotten a real confidence booster. Beginners luck, some call it. I worked pretty hard for said beginners luck to pay off, to be fair.
What I mean to impress here, is that it was pretty surprising to bat above 500 on proposals, especially my very first time submitting observing proposals of any kind. It likely won’t happen again, because as I continue to propose for telescope time, the more likely it is that I’ll approach the field mode acceptance rate. Something about a law of large numbers?
I think part of what occurred this past September (and paid of this past week) was my own over-excitement at being able to freely submit telescope time proposals. When you’re an undergrad, you can’t do much on your own, research-wise. People will take one look at you and turn up their noses, to some degree maybe that’s okay. Undergrads are all wily, unpredictable, and dangerous. Moreover, I think undergrads shouldn’t have to worry about competing for telescope time. With the field experiencing major power creep, undergrads are already pressured to have more and more on their resumes by the time they apply to grad schools: letting undergrads lead proposals might inadvertently lead to X proposals submitted/accepted becoming an unspoken requirement ten years down the line. All that said, having started research early in my undergrad, I’ve been chomping at the bit to propose for my own science and test my steel against the Time Allocation Committees (TAC) of the world.
So I was over-excited, and I ended up submitting six observing proposals in September, to four TACs. And I was awarded four of those proposals.
I started by applying to JHU’s share of telescope time on the ARC 3.5m telescope at Apache Point Observatory. My idea there was to observe the spectra of stars that host planets currently being observed by my collaboration, the ExoGRAVITY project. I wrote a blog post about my experience with those observations, which I was awarded in September.
Then I had an idea to try and use the VLTI/GRAVITY instrument to observe a recently discovered protoplanet candidate, which I submitted as a director’s discretionary time proposal to the European Southern Observatory (ESO) – these are different from regular round proposals, they are meant to address recent discoveries announced after the deadlines for regular proposals. This DDT proposal was rejected, unfortunately. I can understand why though – I didn’t make it clear why I needed to use that specific instrument to answer the questions about this protoplanet candidate that I wanted to answer, and there was a seemingly better instrument to use to reveal the nature of said candidate.
So then I put in a regular round proposal to use that instrument, VLT/MUSE, to observe that same protoplanet candidate. Unfortunately, this past week that proposal was also rejected. I thought I made a pretty compelling case, and presented a really neat figure I worked hard on. This actually was one of the strengths of the proposal that was commented on, the TAC said “Clearly exposed science case, addressing the novel field of accreting protoplanets. The effect of the different possible outcomes on the expected spectrum are well presented via simulated spectra.” Unfortunately, they felt I did not discuss a number of open questions which when considered made the proposal less compelling – those were good to know, considering I might be able to address them and resubmit a similar proposal next time.
The ESO response includes the “pressure” on a given telescope for that proposal round, representing how many people submitted proposals versus how much time they had to give out. For the VLT that has MUSE (among a few other instruments), UT4, the pressure was 7.0. My proposal was ranked in the 2nd quartile of 376 proposals for the telescope (so worse than the median), and in the 3rd quartile out of 1648 for the entire VLT observatory (so better than the median across). Interesting!
I’ve been working with the ExoGRAVITY collaboration since this summer, and so I’ve been working with VLTI/GRAVITY data that the PIs of that collaboration proposed for and got awarded. Naturally, I wanted to try my hand at getting some more data for the team. I thought it would be compelling to propose for joint observations of an upcoming JWST target. The best of the ground and space, right? So I worked with my collaborator Jens, who had a target he was to observe with JWST, but that needed a better orbit estimation. If I could observe Jens’ target with GRAVITY, I could determine its orbit precisely, and then he would know exactly where the target is in his JWST images. That’d be super useful for him, because he’s trying a new observing technique with JW, and it would be useful to know if that technique gives him reliable information on the positions of the targets he’s observing.
It was a long shot, because GRAVITY doesn’t just take up one of the four VLTs, it uses all four at the same time. Proposing to use the VLTI is effectively like applying to use four telescopes, or applying for four times the telescope time you ask for, where those telescopes are the largest and most useful on the planet.
We got the time! 3 hours, to be exact. Our observations are ranked at priority C, pretty low, which means they might not even get fulfilled, depending on weather and the efficiency of the observatory next year. But we got the green check mark. This time, the pressure was 3.0, and our proposal was in the 3rd quartile (better than the median) of the 53 proposals to use the VLTI, and in the 4th quartile (way better than the median) of the 1648 proposals overall. I’m honestly still stunned. I put a lot of thought into this proposal, and made some cool figures, and got to coordinate with my advisors and mentors who helped me revise the proposal text dramatically. We weren’t bulletproof, but the fact that on the first try the proposal made it through? Wow.
Remember when I proposed to use the ARC 3.5m, and I got that time? Well, APO is in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning I couldn’t observe all the Southern Hemisphere targets that I wanted to. So I submitted a proposal to the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab, run by the NSF) to use the SOAR 4.1m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). SOAR has an instrument which is fundamentally equivalent to the instrument I was using for my project at APO, and my proposal was to do my APO project but in the Southern Hemisphere. I tried to rely on the fact that I was requesting to use this instrument specifically because it was equivalent to the one I was already using, and therefore would allow me to get a uniform sample to support the observations being taken by my collaboration at the VLTs. Pretty solid, in my opinion. Your hope is always to make a strong argument that the telescope you’re asking to use is the best, or even better the only, telescope out there to answer the questions you have, or solve the problem you’re faced with.
I got the time on SOAR! NOIRLab doesn’t report a “pressure” like ESO, but they do tell you your “grade” out of 10, and what Quartile you feel in. My SOAR proposal got a 8.80, and fell in the top quartile! I’ll take it.
Back in September, just when I thought I was done with proposal season, having pulled long nights preparing and submitting those 5 other proposals, my friend Zafar came to me with a problem. He had gotten a really cool proposal approved, he got coveted time on the Hubble Space Telescope, the behemoth, the dream-ender itself (HST time is very, very hard to get, is what I’m saying). The only problem is that, in order to fully model his HST results, he would need to know the mass of the planet he’s observing to a higher precision than is currently known. So we devised a proposal to use the NEID instrument on the WIYN 3.5m telescope, a new and super precise radial velocity spectrograph, to measure the mass of Zafar’s planet as precise as we reasonably could. This was a wild proposal to write, because neither Zafar nor I were familiar with radial velocity measurements, and because it turns out that for this particular system RV measurements are going to be really tough to make. We’d need a lot of measurements to get the precision we wanted, and that meant asking for a lot of time. It felt like we were in over our heads, but we kept cool, and did a lot of back of the napkin math, and eventually submitted what ended up being a very convincing proposal.
Least of all, because we got the time. This one was the most surprising, because when I said we didn’t know anyting about RVs, I mean it. I learned a ton really quickly, and wasn’t very confident in my math, but we ended up not only being correct, but convincing. Our proposal went to the NNExplore TAC, which is a NASA group who dish out telescope time on US telescopes to exoplanet projects. They didn’t give a grade, but we were in the top Quartile. Most of all, I’m really happy this project was accepted because it means I get to contribute to research with my friend.
I think, another reason why I submitted so many proposals, was that I was fairly certain none of them would pan out. I heard the horror stories about my field, and set my expectations accordingly. I wanted a win, somewhere in my life, and so I threw a lot of spagetti at the proverbial wall, hoping something stuck. To be fair, its not like I submitted 6 proposals to the HST, or 6 to the VLTs, or the other 10m class observatories around the world. This isn’t a titanic achievement, but it is so much better than I expected. I think there’s something to be said though, for the desperation I felt in September, the mountain of doubt I was trying to climb. At that point in my life I was desperate for control (probably still am, tbh), hoping for victory or satisfactions I could cling to. I wanted to feel worthy, to show all the new and awesome people I was meeting that I was competent. My life was, and still is, changing rapidly. I pushed myself a bit too hard, I think, last September.
I doubt I’ll ever bat 500 again, in fact I shouldn’t expect that of myself whatsoever. My advisor David Sing replied to one of my happy, stunned announcement tweets about these proposal acceptances with some words that seem far more poignant now, reflecting on where I was last September. He said, “any submission is a win.” Mind you, this is coming from the most prolific HST user in the study of exoplanets. David has tons of telescope time on the most oversubscribed telescope that’s ever flown (yet, just wait for JWST to launch). If anyone knows about writing proposals, its him. I suppose, if anyone knows how to feel about submitting proposals, it would be him too.
You can only control the quality of the proposal, outcome can be more or less random and is outside of anything you can do. Thus any submission is a win in its own way— David Sing (@ExoSing) December 22, 2021
So really, I went 6/6, I guess. These past two months have really sucked, to be quite honest. A lot of things outside of my control went wrong, and caused me a lot of heartache and pain. It was hard to pull myself through December. I was only able to because of my friends and loved ones. It kindled a little flame, to be given a few wins at the end of a long, arduous 2021 by my September self. Even if September William should have eased off the gas a bit, in hindsight.