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Moiya McTier: from scientist to science communicator

07 Nov 2023

Moiya McTier describes her journey from academic research in astrophysics, to setting up her own science communication business

Moiya McTier

As a kid, I dreamt about becoming a professional athlete, a famous artist, or maybe the US president. I wanted to solve the mystery of the electron’s quantum leap, or be the world’s leading expert in Arthurian legend. So far, I have achieved none of these dreams – but instead I find myself in the coolest career I could possibly imagine. In fact, I didn’t even know I wanted it when I was younger because the career didn’t exist: I created it myself.

I’ll admit that I had a tremendous advantage along this self-made path compared to most as I was born into academia. My mom was in a PhD programme for literature until I was 14, and some of my earliest memories are of attending the classes she taught to pay her tuition, playing in college lecture halls and writing on blackboards in front of the students. There was virtually no chance I wouldn’t end up in academia, but teenage Moiya couldn’t pick a discipline to save her life. To my mom, however, who struggled to make ends meet with a background in the humanities, the choice was clear: I was to be a scientist.

Cosmic curiosity

In my second year of my undergraduate degree at Harvard University, a friend convinced me to try an astronomy class. I was utterly uninterested. Against my mom’s wishes, I had already fallen in love with the folklore and mythology department. But, by the end of that semester, I thought space was pretty cool too. When I decided to do a double major in both astronomy and folklore – the first person to do so in Harvard’s history – people thought it was an act of courage and conviction. In reality, however, I was just terrified of choosing one and finding out later that it was the less fun choice. In fact, in the decade since, I have continued to make decisions based on maximizing fun and purpose, and it has led to an incredible life.

By my final year, I had only learned enough about the universe to know that I needed to learn more. My classes and research had taught me that planets in circumstellar habitable zones – the area around a star where the conditions are conducive for a planet to host life – are common in the universe. I needed to know if there was a similar Goldilocks zone around the whole galaxy, so I applied to astronomy PhD programmes to satisfy my knowledge cravings.

Once at Columbia University in New York City, I crafted a plan to pursue research projects that would give me the knowledge and skills to answer my big galactic questions. But the classes were gruelling, I quickly realized that I found research tedious, and the toxic parts of academic culture that were hidden from me as a child started to leave a bad taste in my mouth. Public talks and outreach events cleansed my palate for a few sweet hours at a time, but the dread settled in again every time I opened a python window on my computer. My priority gradually shifted from my science to science communication. I still wanted to get the PhD, but I was motivated more by the title and the credibility it granted than by curiosity or passion about the research itself.

Year of yes

In 2018 I was a third year grad student looking ahead to my departure from academia. I committed to what I called a “Year of yes” – 12 months of agreeing to every science communication opportunity that came my way so I could hone my skills and find my voice as a “scicommer”. It was exhausting, but so incredibly satisfying to push myself outside of my comfort zone and confront my imposter thoughts. I didn’t think I was the right person to go on a speaking tour around South Africa, perform in a stand-up comedy showcase, or write a popular-science book, but it didn’t matter what I thought. The “Year of yes” demanded that I accept every invitation, if only to see if I could do “the thing” in question.

Spoiler: I could always do the thing, and do it well.

Aside from the confidence boost, the biggest advantage of the “Year of yes” was the way it made my word-of-mouth references snowball into an avalanche of potential gigs. A science talk for an amateur astronomy club begat a creative workshop for a consulting company, which led to a motivational keynote for a professional conference. I started to make my own content: podcasts, a YouTube channel, and a book (finally achieving one of my many childhood dreams). My platform was growing steadily, and by the time I defended my dissertation in 2021, I was working nearly full-time as a science communicator.

People thought I was brave for veering from the conventional path, but I was merely following the fun and trying to avoid the monotony of a 9-to-5 job

While my astronomy peers were applying to postdoctoral programmes – a seemingly miserable and demoralizing process – I took a leap of faith and started my own science communication business instead. Again, people thought I was brave for veering from the conventional path, but I was merely following the fun and trying to avoid the monotony of a 9-to-5 job.

It didn’t seem risky – I had a book deal with a major publisher, after all – but I’d be lying if I said I felt secure in my decision. The life of a freelancer comes with equal parts freedom and stress about landing your next job, but my good fortune and the referral avalanche I worked so hard to build keep me busy. Within a week of defending my thesis, I had a short job consulting on the science and folklore of the upcoming Disney movie, Wish, and days before I turned in the first full draft of my book, I was asked to host a YouTube show about mythology for PBS.

These days, my time is split between several fun projects like helping people be less afraid of space, protecting artists from unethical generative AI, and writing book number two. No two days are the same, which is perfect for my ADHD brain that needs to bounce from one task to another so it doesn’t get bored.

While it may seem like a daunting challenge to craft your own dream career as I have, I am not an anomaly. It’s easier now than it has ever been to forge your own path – not easy by any means, but easier. All you have to do is follow the fun to a niche that snugly holds whatever makes you uniquely you.

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