Career Profiles: Ruth McAvinia

1.What is your name
Ruth McAvinia

2. Where do you work and what is your role/job title
(from end November 2015) APPEC communications and outreach co-ordinator, and freelance multimedia science communicator. APPEC is the astroparticle physics European consortium.

3. What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
I was absolutely certain I wanted to be an actor, so it was a big decision to take a degree in Drama rather than doing the two-year actor training course I was also offered when I was 17. By the time I had finished my degree I wasn’t sure what to do, so I was very lucky to talk to a recruitment person who knew I absolutely should not work for her, but who helped me to talk to people who would get me into the media. Leaving my job as a journalist in RTE was a massive decision on paper, but in practice it wasn’t really because I knew I would never be totally happy as a TV news journalist or editor and since I didn’t have any commitments making me stay it was easier to go. Going to the International Space University for the first time changed my whole outlook, but I wouldn’t have been able to go if I hadn’t already studied some science.

4. Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
My family; anyone who presented popular science on the BBC but especially Sir Patrick Moore and Sir David Attenborough; a big range of people I met on social media.

5. Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
I am just about to switch roles, but I hope so! Up until now I have been really lucky in the people I’ve met and the countries I’ve lived in.


Questions about your current Job

6. How did you go about getting your current job?
I usually just apply for things I see advertised in newspapers or online. For science communication, there are a few key places to look, but word of mouth can help too.

7. Describe a typical day?
I’ll generalise for all my science communications roles, since I am not sure exactly what the next one will be like. I usually know what will be on the front pages of the newspapers the night before because I see it online. I will check what science stories people are talking about online and in the papers – usually before I even get up. I listen to BBC Radio 4 in the mornings, and the Today programme often has a science story running. Once office hours start, I will usually have a few meetings about how different projects will run – whether they are going to be social media based, whether they are videos, web stories, opportunities to invite in external media coverage, or sometimes something directed at a small group through a particular publication or mailing list. I always have some writing to do but sometimes I avoid it for a few hours if I’m not in the mood – it’s great when I’ve written something and been able to take a day away from it because I am a much better editor than I am a writer, so I can usually improve it a lot on the second pass. Depending on what the activity is, I might be building a story on a website or editing imagery to go with it as well. When I was a journalist, the biggest challenge was getting the story done on time. As a science communication person, the amount of time getting a story approved by all the relevant people is usually about five times longer than I have spent producing it, so it takes patience and lots of emails. When I finish office hours, I might be watching a programme or film or reading a book that is related to my job. I usually keep an eye on Twitter during the evenings as well. I walk a few kilometres to and from work but I would like to get more exercise during the working week.

8. What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
I am usually occupied with finding out what people want to communicate and to whom; then I come up with an idea of how to do it, and set it running. Most of the time it comes out a little bit different to how I imagined it – sometimes because people take ideas and improve them with their own, and sometimes because when content goes through an approval process it gets changed.

9. What are the main challenges?
From the outside, the biggest challenge is having great ideas of how to communicate certain ideas. From the inside, it’s a much bigger challenge to get the people involved to trust in the idea, and not water it down too much.

10. What’s cool?
I get to talk to real experts all the time and learn new things about what scientists are doing. I have the chance to mix the creative and the practical in what I do, and that can be really enjoyable.

11. What’s not so cool?
I had one job where I wasn’t allowed to fix a particular person’s writing, even when the grammar was incorrect. That was a bit demoralising.

12. What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
Working in television and radio really teaches you how to write concisely. Journalistic style is different from formal science writing, so I can help scientists to get their ideas across in a slightly more readable way. It’s very difficult for people who have spent 10+ years writing in the past tense passive voice to change their style, although many of them are extremely good once they realise it’s ok to break the rules they are used to. I also have a lot of experience working with video, which helps when people want to make videos to explain their science. I was really lucky to get training in showing rather than telling, and in using fewer words and more nice sound in video.


Questions about education and training

13. What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
I took Art up until Junior Cert. For Leaving Cert I took History, Geography, Biology, and French as well as the core subjects. If you are interested in working with the space industry, it’s a really good idea to develop language skills as well as your sciences. I can’t tell you how many times French has saved me; my only regret is that my school made incoming students choose between French and German because I wanted to do both.

14. What is your education to date?
It’s a little bit eccentric – I have a BA (Hons) from Trinity Dublin in Drama Studies and Modern Irish, an MPhil in Screen Studies (Film, Television and internet) from Glasgow University, and from the Open University I have a BSc (including certificate in Astronomy and Planetary Science and certificate in Natural Sciences) and an MSc in Science and Society. I also took the Space Studies Program at the International Space University. I am a little bit addicted to studying. I do MOOCs a lot now as well.

15. What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
Writing really depends on reading a lot so that’s been important. Languages are very good in an international environment. Communication changes very rapidly so having a good framework within which to think about it (provided by my arts degree) has been very helpful, but I really have to keep learning all the time.

16. Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?
I don’t have any particular training lined up at the moment. I learn one or two web content management systems every year, so I’m sure there will be a new one to be trained on soon. I keep up with developments in science communication and public attitudes to science all the time, and I’m planning to write a couple of conference papers next year (but my topics should be a lot of fun!)


Questions about yourself

17. What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
I really loved the reaction to the #WakeUpRosetta animation, because I had suggested making Rosetta into a fairytale and I wrote the original outline. As I’ve grown up a bit, I’ve found training other people and encouraging them to be better communicators is the most rewarding. I do training through ISU and through a committee I’m on in the International Astronautical Federation.

18. What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
I like to finish things and have good concentration for the most part, so that’s a help in getting projects completed. I get really excited about projects, and will think about them 24 hours a day – that helps with the creative side.

19. What is your dream job?
Ha! That’s really tough to answer because I am always changing and get to do most of my dream jobs at one time or another. I suppose my ideal would be to have the flexibility to take on freelance roles but actually have a steady job to pay the bills – unfortunately there are only so many hours in the day.


Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

20. What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Study hard to get good grades, but also start practising communications work now. Digital media are so accessible – there is nothing to stop you becoming a dab hand at video and web content. Anyone who wants to write about anything should be reading all the time – read what you enjoy, but take some time to ask yourself why you enjoy it too.

21. What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Determination Attention to detail A sense of wonder

22. What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Writing for a school paper or website, or local newspaper, or your own blog (you can keep it private and not publish at all, but get into the habit of writing regularly and going back to see what you would change a few days or a few weeks later) Community radio or podcasting. Radio is a brilliant discipline for learning to write, and for working in teams. Debating in schools competitions – I did a lot of debating from fifth year and all the way through university. It’s great for learning how to construct arguments, thinking on your feet, and telling jokes. Almost every job in science and science communication relies on giving presentations regularly but most of the young scientists I encounter haven’t been taught how, and are expected to pick it up as they go. Debating and public speaking will give you a head start.