ASTR 8500 (O'Connell, July 2017)


Most resources (money, observing time, and computing facilities) in astronomy are competitively awarded. This means that all astronomers must become adept at writing proposals to secure those resources.

The current national budget to support research in astronomy is over $400K per astronomer per year (see this table), which sounds more than ample. But individual investigators can acquire direct control over only a small portion of that amount in the form of grants. Most of the funding supports the design, implementation, and operation of a set of large, shared facilities (e.g. the Keck telescopes, ALMA, HST), and access to these is awarded almost exclusively through a proposal process.

Most of the following tips apply to all kinds of proposal writing, but they are specifically aimed toward university personnel proposing to obtain research grants from federal agencies or access to major national facilities (telescopes, computers).


Success rates for proposals in astronomy currently are generally small: rarely better than 30% and in the more competitive cases, only about 10%.

For NSF research grants, success rates are currently in the 15-20% range.

Since a success rate more in the range of 30-50% would be much more healthy for the field, this is not a good situation and has gotten worse over the last 30 years. It is a consequence of the large number of people who have been attracted to astronomy over that time coupled with small growth in the federal budget for astronomy.

For intra-department observing proposals for time on our guaranteed-access facilities, the success rate is typically 80%.


Writing a good proposal is time consuming, and (obviously) the effort increases in proportion to the scale of the project involved. Some rules of thumb:

A recent survey of effort versus success was published by Ted and Courtney von Hippel (2015), who found that the average research grant proposal takes 116 PI hours and 55 Co-I hours to write and that the primary predictor of success is having had previous success.

Advance planning


Proposal Review

Writing the Proposal

Advice for Graduate Students

Web links

Last modified July 2017 by rwo

Text copyright © 2012-2017 Robert W. O'Connell. All rights reserved.