Maya Lau is the creator, host and executive producer of the podcast, Other People’s Pockets, produced by Pushkin Industries and Little Everywhere. She's an award-winning former investigative reporter for The…
Gain access to ad-free versions of 20+ podcasts from the Pushkin library along with exclusive bonus episodes and other member benefits.
If Liam Dodd – a literal nuclear physicist – can work at world-renowned institutions and still be unhoused, we’ve got a problem. Liam shares how he pivoted from his couch-surfing life in academia to a career in which they (gasp!) pay you.
I'm like, well, fuck you. I got paid nothing for four and a half years. Let's make money for two years, and then go do the rest of my life with not being broke, basically.
Being able to call yourself a nuclear physicist sounds important, like it must pay a lot. Nuclear physicists must be at the top of the food chain with a job for life, right? Liam Dodd begs to differ.
My name is Dr. Liam Dodd, and I'm a data scientist.
Dr. Dodd was a physicist in Geneva at CERN, which is where the Large Hadron Collider is located. He's also worked at CEA, a similarly famous lab in Paris, which we'll hear him talk about. Now, he's working in used cars. I wanted to know why.
I'm Maya Lau, and this is Other People's Pockets, the show where I ask people about their money, so the questions we all have about how much other people make and how their finances work can be a little bit less of a mystery.
Thank you so much, Liam. Thank you for being on the show.
No worries. I was quite interested to be asked, so I'm happy to be here.
Oh, good. You are a nuclear physicist, and also a data scientist.
Can you explain to us what exactly you do?
So currently, I work in industry. So I work in data science, doing machine learning and AI tools around the secondhand automotive market. But I have a PhD in antimatter physics, and I worked for four and a bit years as a research physicist. So I worked at CERN in Switzerland, and I also worked at CEA in Paris, doing fundamental research into antimatter and specifically the gravitational interaction of antimatter.
Can you just describe in... Obviously I've read your LinkedIn profile and stuff, and I'm still not sure I fully understand exactly what you were studying. Can you break it down? What was your particular focus, and what was kind of the question that you were trying to answer in your studies?
Okay, so I'll break it down into two separate parts. So what I was studying was how to produce and focus a beam of antimatter protons towards a very specific target. So that very small section was what I focused my entire time doing, just steering, stabilizing, and focusing a beam of antimatter protons towards the target. But the reason we're doing that is because we were trying to answer this question, which is in the standard model, there is no explanation for gravity. The standard model of physics doesn't include a good, thorough description of gravity.
So what physicists are doing at the moment is trying to find areas where they can possibly find something that disagrees with our understanding of physics, to try and probe how gravity works at a quantum level. And the reason it's interesting is because antimatter was first predicted by giving particles negative mass. It turns out we create antimatter particles, and they have positive mass. We don't have negative mass in physics.
And what is antimatter?
So antimatter is symmetric to matter. So for every matter particle, you have an anti-matter equivalent which is the same but has an opposite charge. So it's basically a mirror image of the universe, in terms of particles that exist. But that means we have equations where you have matter and antimatter interacting gravitationally, and we don't know what will happen. There's no explanation what will happen. We all predict they will behave like normal gravity, because that's just how we think physics will work.
But we were trying to test that if you drop antimatter particles on Earth, so on a matter gravitational field, will it fall up or will it fall down? Because that question can then start probing, like any deviation from what's expected, we can try to poke and prod holes into how does gravity actually work, and how does antimatter differ from matter? Because at the beginning of the universe, anti-matter and matter were created an equal numbers, and they should have annihilated each other to leave nothing but radiation. But instead, we have a matter universe, so we don't know why.
So what will it tell us, or what will it tell the world once we know more about how and why gravity works?
Yeah, so we have Newton's model, which is pretty good for base stuff, quite simple stuff, and then you have Einstein's model of general relativity, which is really good at doing good predictions of how gravity works across the solar system and across the universe. But then when you get to really, really small levels, because gravity is so exceptionally weak. Like, if you think about it, the entire mass of the Earth, which I think is like six times 10 to the 26 kilograms, that can be beat by me lifting my fingers up. That's a huge amount of mass, and I can overcome it with a few muscles in my fingers. So the gravity's just so weak that we don't know how to get it to work together with quantum mechanics, where things are so, so strong and powerful at close ranges to each other.
So is what you're doing now a departure from your physics work?
Basically, yeah. So when you get to the end of the PhD, the split is whether you carry on in academia doing the postdoctoral path and then lecturing and then professorship, or whether you go into industry. And also, at every step along postdoctorate, lecturer, professor, people continually leave to go into industry. And I, weighing up all the options, chose to go into industry, because as partly financial, but also because of the lifestyle involved in being a postdoctoral physicist.
Oh. Can you talk more about that? You were kind of deciding basically between two different career paths, and it sounds like you chose a path that was maybe more lucrative, and also had a better lifestyle.
So the pay as a PhD student is genuinely horrific. The amount of money we get is borderline criminal. But as a postdoc, you start getting real salaries that are based on, especially in Europe, I'm not sure about American conditions, but in Europe, most countries have some sort of collective agreement about how much people can be paid based on their qualifications. So suddenly you get a salary, which isn't all that much, but going off making almost nothing, suddenly feels quite good. So the money is not great, but it's livable.
But the problem is, because postdoctoral contracts are anywhere from six months to two years, like two years is about the maximum you'll get, you have to keep moving around chasing grants and research positions at different universities. But if you're not lucky, then you end up having to move all the way around the world just to keep trying to do more physics. So I was trying to build a life with my partner, so I wanted to be able to move either towards her or move closer to her, or have at least a stable job near in their area, rather than living in Switzerland while she lived in Austria. So I just chose to go to a job where I at least knew I had some sort of protection and some level of continuity. Like my contract, my current contract is a permanent contract. It never runs out.
Ever? Like, for life?
Yeah. They can dismiss me for various things, but they have to be actual reasons they can get rid of me. I could stay in the job until the company collapses, basically, and they'd have to pay me out.
Is that common?
So I'm employed by an Austrian company, and Austria has over 90% union membership, and almost every job has some sort of union that's done the collective bargaining. So there's no minimum wage in Austria, because the unions have agreed a minimum wage that everyone has to be paid, and your pay has to go up a certain amount every so often, and your pay has to scale to your qualifications. And one of the things that's big about that is that once you have passed your probation period, your contract is like, it's called permanent. They're not truly permanent, because obviously the company can get rid of you for multiple reasons, but in general, they're quite hard to get rid of you once you're hired. So that's why they have that probation period, to see if you're actually a really good fit for the company.
That's interesting. So now you're a data scientist for an auto company, right?
Yeah. They do market analysis and data for the secondhand car market in Europe.
Okay, that sounds completely different than what you were doing in your studies. I mean, what's the relation there? What are you taking from your studies over into this new job you have?
So a lot of what physics is, in particle physics especially, is getting lots and lots of data and then looking through the data for the result you're trying to find, or disprove it. So I spent a lot of time working with data, doing a lot of statistical analysis, doing a lot of programming, and doing a lot of coding so that I could build tools that would do analysis, or build things that would model things for me. So I had languages that only particle physicists use to do lots of modeling, and then it spits out huge amounts of data.
So I have all the skills of my mathematics, my statistical analysis, my data understanding, my programming, and then I take that all and then apply it to a completely new field where I don't need to actually understand cars all that much. I just need to be able to learn some things here and there, and then let the data speak for itself and bring the conclusions out from it without me having to think too much about what each of it means in the kind of most basic level.
So it seems like you went from researching super high-minded, big questions about the universe to the business of selling used cars. Do any of your colleagues in the physics world think that you've sold out?
It's kind of funny. So obviously I'm on LinkedIn, as you saw my stuff on there, and I have all my PhD colleagues on LinkedIn. And there is a kind of game that we play as we watch, as all my physics PhDs have gone into postdocs, you see how many years they last in postdoc before they become a data scientist, because it's pretty much the career path that everyone does out of our kind of physics, because it's very mathematically minded. If you don't make it in academia for long enough, you end up being a data scientist or you go work on Wall Street, and the people who work on Wall Street get more criticism than the people who do what I do. So I think it's more each-
You did the less sellout option?
Yeah, it's the less sellout option. And also, all of us internally knew that if we could have a stable life and make money, all of us would never have left physics. We all know that to be the case, but that's just not how the world of academia works. So we all know that all of us would rather be doing physics, because that's all we ever wanted to do in our lives, but we understand the reality has changed and can't. That's not a way we can survive in the world.
It just seems like you spent so many years of study. It requires obviously also a lot of just intelligence and intellectual rigor, and then you're not really... It sounds like you weren't really compensated very well. Can you talk to me about that?
Yeah, so the whole of academia seems to... Well, I can't speak for humanities, because they have a different system, and I feel very sorry for how they're screwed over. But in science, a lot of it is based on the fact that the whole system works on PhDs doing really rough and hard work for well below their market value because of the passion they have for the subject and their interest in studying that. And while I think we should be paid more for what we do and that there should be much better compensation in general, the system has built itself economically around the fact that PhDs are very, very cheap labor.
For my example, my experiment had a lot of very specific component parts. So we had like million euro vacuum systems that would turn the tubes that we worked into to very, very low vacuum pressures, and these were like million euros just to buy one. So this is the kind of expense they're looking at, and then they say, "Well, to pay for a PhD for three years is like 35,000 euros, so we can just get two or three of those and they can run all this stuff." So the economics is so broken in that PhDs are viewed as basically very cheap labor to get quite complex things done.
Right. And you said that you were like criminally underpaid. What was your pay? How much were you paid?
So by the time I was finishing, my pay was about 1,300 euros a month. You don't pay tax, because it's an EU grant, so you just take home what you get, which 1,300 euros is not bad. People live on less, but it doesn't really compensate for the lifestyle that you have to live. So when I was living in France, I was living in Paris, which is a very expensive city to live in, and my rent was about 40% of what I took home, which was fine. I was all right with that. I didn't have much spare money, but I was never broke. But then when I went to Switzerland, Geneva's average rent is about 1,000 to 1,100 a month, which when you do the sums, leaves me with 200 to 300 a month to feed myself, travel everywhere, to work every day, and buy anything else I need. So it just leaves you with no money left over afterwards.
What did it look like practically for you?
It was living in hostels and hotels, staying with random other PhDs that had floor space. It was sleeping in my office. I think the last month and a half I was in Geneva, I think my diet was basically three cheese sandwiches and a packet of crisps a day, and that's why I lived off while working 12 to 14-hour days. There are pictures of me before my PhD and pictures of me afterwards, and I aged quite a bit in the last year and a half of my PhD because of the stress and poor diet and not sleeping.
So you were basically homeless?
I was literally homeless, yeah.
So your bosses in this scenario, I mean, do they know this? Did they know that you were basically, that you were homeless, and what did they think about that?
The [inaudible 00:15:28] problem I had is that because I was there for six months and then got a six-month extension, no one would rent to me, because they wouldn't give me a contract less than a year. So that made it difficult for me to find permanent housing, just in general. And the day I was due to come back to Geneva, because I'd been visiting my partner in Austria, I was meant to view a house to rent, and it was a scammer who was trying to scam me for 1,000 euros.
But I'd worked out on the train, I got an overnight train from Austria to Switzerland, I'd worked out on the train that this was really suspicious, and their behavior was really just suspicious. So I basically arrived in Geneva then without a home, and my boss let me sleep at his house for three or four days while I found a hostel to stay in.
So yeah, so the only time I had permanent housing for more than a month was when I spent two months living in a small French town called Jecks, which was an hour and a half from work, and I used to have to get three buses to get to work. One of the buses took me to the airport, which was like every morning, I saw all these happy people going or coming on holiday. And that's just me, like an hour and a half into my journey trying to get to work.
Wow. I mean, I think people really have no idea that some of the scientists working at some of the most prestigious institutions, who are trying to answer these really big questions about physics, are couch-surfing and can barely feed themselves. You're doing something that... I mean, you've said that if you could, you would still be doing physics. So now do you feel a sense of peace with where you're at, and given all the factors, the money and stability and being close to your partner and everything, that it's all worth it? Or are you angry that you can't do this thing that you love?
I'm personally quite content with where I am. My job is very good in that I work from home. I have a very small team that I actually work alongside. I find programming and data just personally very interesting. Even when I was doing my PhD, I had spreadsheets of how many podcasts I listened to, what movies I'd watched. I would analyze all this stuff just for fun, because I found data interesting. So I'm one of those very obsessive data nerds.
So I personally enjoy what I do, and my quality of life is so vastly improved from what it was when I was researching. The comfort that I've got from my job and doing quite well with my job is something that I'm personally relatively happy with my position. But I think that in general, the vast difficulty in maintaining people in academia when they want to be in academia is such a negative cost to society as a whole.
So there's so much benefit from if people who want to study can study to this high level, that us not choosing to fund it just feels like we're losing so many benefits because of how we've done the system. And that's before you get the fact that doing a PhD and a master's is incredibly classist and has huge amounts of ableism built into it, and it's just a hugely punishing system for those who don't fit the very narrow prescriptions of what people expect from people in those fields.
I'm not likening my scenario to yours at all, but it just is making me think of... You know, I was a journalist for many years and left recently, and I had a lot of moments where it just felt like, who is the person that can actually afford to stay in this industry? It seems like there's a fair number of people who actually just come from family money, and they're just doing journalism because it's fun for them and they like it, but not because it's actually how they make a living. And there certainly are people who make a living, but it's not... If you have kids or you have bigger financial goals, it can be pretty tough. I mean, I wonder if it's similar in science, where the people that can actually afford to do scientific research their whole life, maybe they actually just have other sources of funds.
I don't know the statistics of it down to how it behaves across the whole thing. But when I was in France, I was at an institute called CEA, which is one of the premier nuclear research facilities in France. It's where they built the first French reactors, because France is a very, very nuclear heavy and pro-nuclear country, and this is one of the centers where this all came from. And the people who were there who were French had come from the very, very, very best French schools and universities, these ecoles superieures and stuff. And all of them basically came from some level of money, because to do it, you've got to go to a prep university, and then usually you get some sort of tutoring or assistance during that prep university to go to the superieure university.
And I came from a pretty standard middle class background. My parents were never poor when they had me. We had money, and then we had less money, but we never were broke, which I think also means that I have what I've heard people describe, the kind of middle-class confidence that even though I had negative money in my bank account, was homeless, was eating really garbage, if worst came to worst, my parents would've flown me home and I could have stayed with them while I sorted my life out. So even though I was in a very dire situation, I think for me the actual severity of it was never at the forefront of my mind, possibly because of stress, but also because the worst thing that could happen to me was going to live with my parents for a bit.
Do you have student loans?
Yeah, I have British ones, so I will never pay them off, and no one bothers me about it all that much. I pay a few hundred every few months, and the interest goes up, and in 40 years, it'll go away. But I don't live in the UK anymore, so they can't really chase me if I stop paying.
You said in 40 years, it'll go away. They forgive it after that time?
Yeah, so our student loans are basically provided by the government, and we pay them back basically as like a graduate tax, rather than us actual repaying them. So if you make a lot of money, you'll pay it off real quickly. If you don't make a lot of money and make just enough to hit the minimum contributions, you basically just pay a tax on the rest of your working career for having gone to university.
So how much money do you make now?
It's a little bit over 40,000 a year.
Do you feel like 40,000 euro a year is comfortable for you?
I would like to make more, because I think there's more comfort that would come from making more, but I... I don't consider myself frugal, but I just don't consider myself to be that expensive in my tastes. So I support, my partner's studying at the moment, so I support her, and we have three pets and the vet bills on that, and we cook all our own food, and we pay for any public transportation or when we go out for drinks and dinner. So all those costs, I don't run out of money every month based on how I live. But if I had more money, then I could travel more. I could go on weekends away, because every weekend away we go on, we have to find someone to look after the cats, but if I just had more money, I could just throw money at the problem. So I consider myself very comfortable with where I am, but obviously more money would give me more opportunities to do more things.
Right. Yeah, I mean, it gives freedom. I mean, I wonder if you've ever just, like out of the corner of your mind, considered a Wall Street job, just because I imagine it would pay potentially many multiples of what you're making.
Yeah, so when I was at the end of my PhD, I was beginning to look for jobs to apply for, and then while I was doing that, I got approached by a Goldman Sachs recruiter who was looking for hires in their data science field that they have at their company. And the salary they start on is something stupid, like £110,000 a year or something, which is a lot of money, but I don't really like the financial sector. I think it's pretty gross. So the kind of money that would basically be buying my silence and compliance is the kind of wage they have to pay. As I've got older and I've met people who work for, quotation marks, bad companies, I've got a bit more of a nuanced understanding of how that works. But some companies, I just don't think I could work for without having to be paid literally stupid money, because I just wouldn't feel very comfortable with what I'm doing.
Yeah. Well yeah, for sure. I mean, I'm just wondering, based on everything you've gone through, and I think some of the frustrations around how little scientists are paid, if... You know, I can imagine there being moments where you're like, "Fuck this. For two years, I'm going to just catch up, basically."
Yeah, no, it's... Sorry, my partner just messaged me to remind me that she was the one that was very upset that I got the Goldman Sachs offer, because she thought the company was evil
Oh, and that you weren't the one that was...
Yeah, no. Yeah, she's just messaged me, "How dare you say it was you that was angry?" and not her.
Yeah, you were actually fine with it.
Oh, I had the same logic that you had. I'm like, well, fuck you, I got paid nothing for four and a half years. Let's make money for two years, and then go do the rest of my life with not having, not being broke, basically.
Yeah. And I feel like I've also... I definitely had a very negative view of the financial industry at a young age, but more recently have been very intrigued by funds that basically investigate fraudulent companies and then build short positions against them. And sometimes they hire former investigative reporters, which is what I am, basically to investigate companies and to find companies that are actually fraudulent, or are lying to investors, or are totally not doing what they say they're doing, and that's an area that I'm totally interested in. But from my 20-year-old version of myself, I would've said like, oh, I don't want to get into finance at all. But there's actually a lot of interesting corners of it that become a little more interesting when you've lived a little longer.
So what you were just saying, I think that's one of the things that like... So my general politics and economic views are very much not in favor of finance and the way that it operates, but I think people in my position who are very much favor of green technologies, very much opposed to how banks operate, and would like to have much more control going to labor, don't think about what happens if you do begin to invest, especially in large quantities. If people like myself had put more money and investment towards, or at least asked our pensions to be put towards green technologies like 10, 15 years ago, the amount of money that exists in those kind of pension parts could have started to actually begin to make an impact on how the rest of the economy rotates around these things.
Because I know that until very recently, my pension fund that I pay into because of the way I work, was going towards coal and oil companies, because they're just considered very safe investments. And I don't want to be supporting them, but I didn't know that I could go and ask my pension part to be directed towards more ethical companies. And I have friends who work in similar kind of fields to you, in terms of the finance stuff, and that they work for like, they investigate the behavior of banks and stuff for the government, and one of the things they often read is stockholder reports.
They get hold of what the stockholders are being told, and they can use that for information and for advice, and there are people who buy stock in Google and Facebook just to get hold of the memos to see what the hell's going on with the company. And people who are very opposed to these places who don't have any involvement with how the company's operating have no power to make them change, nor have any real information on how they're internally justifying the behavior. And then when you have places like in, I think America, there's a lot of power given to shareholders if they actually unite together and do something. But we were never doing that, because none of us wanted to be involved with their company, or make money off them making money. So eventually, we ended up screwing ourselves, because we didn't want to participate in the system.
But the system didn't care. The system just carried on doing what it was doing.
I'm also thinking of this idea that in order to be an activist, or in order to be for social justice, there's this assumption that that means that you don't have money, or that money doesn't important to you, isn't your main goal. And actually, the way to have the energy and the clarity of mind and the time and the capacity to fight for social change often involves being a little more financially stable, because if you're scraping by, and you're working three jobs or stressed out all the time and not getting sleep, you're not going to be very effective. You're not going to be able to think big and strategize and volunteer or whatever.
Because I think that I was very much brought up with like, you shouldn't have money as your goal. It leads to perverse outcomes. Just do something that you believe in, and then you'll probably make enough money to live and that's fine. But I wish I had learned more about like, you need a good bit of money if you want to be financially comfortable, or even financially free. And that in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, because you're going to need that stability to do the kind of things you want to do.
Yeah, because I think as I've got older... While the PhD is not comparable to someone who works two or three jobs just to make ends meet, when I was going to work, I was leaving for work at 8:00 in the morning, I would get home sometime after 8:00 PM, sometimes 10:00 PM, would often have to walk and get buses to get back and forth from work to where I lived. I had no mental capacity to actually complain about my situation. I got home and I would literally vegetate in front of the screen for an hour and then go to bed, because I had no capacity to do anything more than that. And when people are struggling to make ends meet, how are they going to really be able to get the opportunity to try to improve the situation? Even as simple as how unionship works and stuff like that, even taking time out to go to meet a union rep.
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Well, if you have kids who have to be fed or picked up from school, you don't have time. Your day is already running on the bare bones of limits. Taking 50 minutes out of your day to listen to someone who, if it worked out, yeah, you probably would improve your situation, but you don't have the time for that. You literally don't have the time and capacity to think about that.
Yeah, I was one of the organizers for when the Los Angeles Times formed a union, and I mean, it was a lot of work. It was a lot of time, and talking to all of our colleagues and going to meetings, and I actually had to bow out at some point, because I became pregnant. It was just too much, and I felt really bad. But it's a lot of work to advocate for yourself and your colleagues and to try to make things better, and if you're just exhausted all the time, it's not going to happen.
Yeah, it's not viable. It's one of the things that I dislike when people expect everyone to be ready to fight for the cause. You can't expect it. It's just not possible. Real simple things can massively impact your ability to be involved in these things, and therefore you can't really work to improve it unless you have, as you said, money to be comfortable and stable and not have to panic about things, and then the time on top of that that money gives you. If you only have to work one job, it gives you loads more time than if you're busting yourself back and forth between two jobs.
Yeah. So what do you indulge in, if anything, financially?
Video games, and every so often, Formula One-related expenses.
Huh. Okay. What kind of video games?
Well, currently have a PS4. I will buy a PS5 when Horizon Forbidden West comes out. But I kind of play a lot of things. Anything from AAA to indie, if it seems interesting, I will spend my time playing it. But mostly things that are story-focused, like Last of Us 2 was my favorite game of the recent time.
What does enough look like to you?
When I can buy my food, go out, and have some sort of holiday throughout the year, and my bank account never gets close to zero.
Thank you so much, Liam. This has really been fun talking to you.
I had a good time as well.
Other People's Pockets is written and hosted by me, Maya Lau. It's produced by me, along with Joy Sanford and Dann Gallucci. Production help from Angela Vang. Our mix engineer is Dann Gallucci. Our executive producers are me, Maya Lau, along with Jane Marie and Dann Gallucci. A special thanks to cheese sandwiches and crisps. Other People's Pockets is a co-production of Pushkin Industries and Little Everywhere. To find more Pushkin podcasts, listen on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Maya Lau is the creator, host and executive producer of the podcast, Other People’s Pockets, produced by Pushkin Industries and Little Everywhere. She's an award-winning former investigative reporter for The…