Two pet peeves in astronomy

I am going to be a complainer today. Yes, it’s not all sunshine and roses in our profession (is it anywhere?). But I am in a grumpy mood today and just needed to vent about it. Blog post about Ringberg AGN meeting will have to wait. With that I give you my current two pet peeves about astronomers:

a) Potential employers don’t write rejection letters

In a typical application year of a postdoc, I have heard of people applying to 20-30 job positions (perhaps less if there are constraints like 2-body problems, etc.). A few of those will result in job interviews and I hope the candidate is good and lucky enough to get that position. But what I find really sad is that from half or more of these positions advertised out there, the candidate will hear nothing. That’s right, I don’t mean no feedback or anything like that, NOTHING. Sometimes, one can find out via the rumor mill, but not all positions are advertised there and it’s not up to date with all positions.

This is endemic and embarrassing to our field and frankly I don’t think there is ANY valid excuse to not do this. How difficult is it to write a form letter with the bottom 90% candidates in the bcc: field. “Dear Applicant: we are sorry to inform you that your application was unsuccessful. Thank you for your interest.” !??! Boom, that’s it. You don’t need a special secretary, you don’t need an explanation, but your candidate will be thankful (well, at least acknowledge) that he/she can cross that one off and move their hopes to the next application. It is really unprofessional to leave job-seekers waiting in the dark, when they are willing to move their whole life for your job.

On a related note, it is not necessary, but it would be great if there could be an acknowledge-letter that the application was received. I applied to a position where it was not entirely clear if one could apply via e-mail, I wrote 3 e-mails (one to the official address and two to the person designed to be in charge) and never received an answer. Only a few weeks later came a cryptic message that interviews were in the process of being scheduled for December – well, that leaves me guessing that they did get my application. I never received anything from them again – well, that leaves me guessing I am not on the shortlist. It’s a guessing game – this is a job where I would have to move my whole family to attend and it gets treated like some contest to win some knives over the internet.

b) Astronomers complaining about traveling too much

Successful astronomers travel. It can be for observing, conferences, invited seminars, scientific collaborations, etc. If you are really successful it might be to offer an opinion at a large panel or to coordinate administrative duties on a large project. In any case, even in the days of good telecon software, skype and remote observing, travel is often a necessity. What I don’t understand is how people know this, yet they complain about it. You know what you signed up for, it’s quite often in the job description, many people actually become astronomers because of it. Why are you complaining?

Is it to brag? Oh, look how many seminars I got invited to? That’s cool and I am actually happy for everybody’s success, but why wrap it within disdain. Is it too much for you? What would happen if you just declined invitations? If you got invited to 12 conferences in a year that’s great and all, but you don’t have to attend all of them and if you do, then I feel like you don’t have the right to complain about it. Strangely, I have found that the most successful or senior scientists that travel quite frequently don’t complain as much.

On that note, I would urge you to ask yourself if you really need to take that trip. I was on a white paper on the decadal survey on “Low Energy
Astrophysics“, trying to become greener astronomers. One of the main steps is trying to reduce your carbon footprint by traveling less to remote locations. Driving a Prius, changing your light-bulbs and having a water efficient shower-head at home is all great, but it’s a bit moot as soon as you start traveling overseas regularly. There’s a wiki for this initiative, which unfortunately has not gotten much updates lately.

The other side – serving on a Telescope Time Allocation Committee

This week I want to talk a bit about observing and TACs (Time Allocation Committees). Usually, when you want to observe at a big telescope, you must submit a proposal for your program. In that proposal you have to explain in detail what you want to observe and the scientific merits of your program among other things. Some telescopes (especially of the space variety) want to include how your program might relate to public outreach activities, other telescopes require an extensive list of your previous work, so that high quality and timely output is ensured.

All these things are graded by a group of people called the TAC. It is usually a group of people familiar with the facility and the scientific field of the proposal. However, large leeway can be made in either of these directions. If there is a time oversubscription, that is if the number of proposed observing hours exceed the number of available hours, then only the highest graded proposals will get any observing time. For highly sought after telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the oversubscription rate can be as high as 10:1. Considering that only very few outright unfeasible or unscientific (aehm, bad) proposals get submitted, that is a lot of pressure on the TAC, making sure that only the best programs are selected. Every member has to carefully read the proposal and make personal notes, grades and comments, but each proposal gets discussed by the time the panel meets, to make sure that there are no conflicts of interest, personal vendettas or even to clear out some potential misunderstandings. The TAC then sends the recommendations and grades to the telescope scheduler, who actually has final say which programs get chosen. The proposer then gets the comments back with a likelihood with which the program will actually be observed.

During the last few years all of this was pretty much a black box to me. I submitted and submitted proposals. Sometimes I got the time, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes the negative feedback was extremely helpful, sometimes… well, it really wasn’t and actually made me angry. Sometimes the feedback was a bit bizarre. A few examples (paraphrasing to make shorter): “This program is great, but the proposers should have asked for more time, so we chose to not give any time”, “This program is great, but the proposer is not senior enough”, “You have convinced us that red quasars are young, but we don’t think the young phase is really interesting”. And of course, there is the flattering comments: “This was the best proposal in its category, it should definitely be awarded time!” ha! Also, it seemed some telescopes were, hmmm, how to put this delicately, fairer than others, it was about the science and not about who you knew at the TAC.

In the last year I have now been part of the LBT TAC relating to the german time allocated. The AIP gets about 5% of the total observing time, since it is building the PEPSI high resolution spectrograph. Because the amount of time is so small, about 40 hours of observing time divided into 20 hours good time and 20 hours doubtful time, the TAC has to actually evaluate every science category and not just your field of expertise (which would be extragalactic science for me).

It has been an interesting experience to be sitting on the other side of the process (similar to being referee for a paper). As usual, I am always very impressed with all the good work that my colleagues are doing in astronomy. The following are a few things, I kind of picked up these last 3 TAC meetings and evaluations:

It is not necessary to go for the home run (“this will fundamentally change our understanding in galaxy evolution”) – in baseball, as in science OBP – on base percentage (projects to work on) are the meat and potatoes. Describe to me your project in context of other work going on. It’s ok if your result will be just a grain of salt within a big field, but be sure to thoroughly make me understand that grain of salt and why it is important.

Be very aware of the telescope / instrument you are applying for. Look, we all recycle our proposals for different telescopes, but you need to at least address why this instrument is best suited for your science. Otherwise, since I am trying to cut time among a lot of good projects, I will just tell you to propose at that other instrument (that you have access to), which is better suited. This is just like applying for a job and just replacing the name and institution in your cover letter – don’t! At least change your proposal somewhat to tailor it for the facility.

This relates very much to the first point above, try to write a proposal without too much jargon in it. I know this is difficult, especially for graduate students. Believe me, practice makes perfect and you will become much better at it explaining you research to all different levels of an audience. For example, instead of saying “the M-sigma relation” write that the mass of the central supermassive black hole is related to many properties of its host galaxy. An expert will know what you mean with both statements, but a stellar astronomer might not have known everything about it.

I think those are the most important points. Of course, the actual process of the proposal (e.g. simulations or previous work) should be careful, precise and honest, but I assume that as a given. The actual TAC meetings are always fun. We are genuinely sad, even though we were looking for them, when points come up, that make your proposal unfeasible. I am definitely looking forward to continuing the work in the next few semesters.