JHSPH Alumni Profiles

Dr. Julia Baller earned, PhD

Photo of Dr. Baller Dr. Julia Baller earned a PhD from the Bloomberg School of Public Health Department of Health Policy and Management in 2014. Her dissertation investigated the Medicaid financing of special education services for children with disabilities. Prior to matriculating at Bloomberg, Dr. Baller earned a BA from Washington University in Saint Louis and worked at the National Institute of Mental Health performing genetic epidemiology research. While she was a student at Bloomberg, she interned at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Currently, Dr. Baller is a Health Researcher at Mathematica Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

What are your responsibilities at your current position?

I wear several different hats at Mathematica. As a researcher, I am responsible for designing and implementing studies relating to Medicaid and behavioral health services. I am a mixed-methods researcher, but currently most of my work relies on quantitative methods. In addition to the research, I manage two very large research tasks, which involves strategic planning, staffing, and budgeting. Finally, I supervise seven Master’s-level health research analysts.

Why did you choose your current career? Did you know you wanted to go down this career path when you were in graduate school?

During my time at the National Institute of Mental Health, I realized that I was really interested in investigating mental health services. This informed my decision to pursue a PhD in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Bloomberg. Although I had a great experience as a PhD student at Hopkins, I realized I was less interested in a career in academia and more intrigued by a position more directly connected to policymakers. Because Medicaid is the biggest payer of mental health services, I decided to take an internship at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). During this time, I learned that much of the data-related work was contracted to Mathematica, which led me to considering my current position.

While in graduate school, my ideal career path was often unclear. Fortunately, my advisor helped me explore my options. With her help, I realized I needed a highly interactive and energetic work environment. I knew I was interested in policy, and for that reason wanted to be based in DC. I did feel a pull to work in government, but I ultimately decided that Mathematica was a better fit. Mathematica has been my home since I graduated.

What was your transition like from being a graduate student in academia into being a professional in your field?

The transition to a non-academic position was both challenging and relieving. As a graduate student, the research process was largely independent, and I was responsible for all aspects of my work. I proposed a research question and analysis plan, carried it out, and wrote it up with the guidance of a phenomenal dissertation committee. In my current position, my responsibilities are much more siloed. For example, I may be responsible for designing a study, but we have a dedicated programming team that is specifically trained in coding. Frankly, I am a very clunky coder, so I felt relieved that I was responsible for the aspects of the research project for which I was trained. But I had to learn to delegate, and I needed to give up control over many aspects of the process that I was used to carrying out myself. I think the quality of our work greatly benefits from this process, but it was a big adjustment after completing a dissertation.

What part of this job do you find most satisfying? Most challenging?

A very satisfying part of my job is feeling like I have the ear of the people who are making important policy decisions. I have had the opportunity to work with several different groups within CMS, and they highly value the input of Mathematica employees. As researchers, we are able to give them the evidence they need to make important decisions about how to improve programs like Medicaid that serve those in greatest need.

The biggest challenge I have experienced is being in a role responsive to government interests. In academia, you have the flexibility to develop your own research agenda. By contrast, the majority of projects at Mathematica are funded via federal contracts in which the research questions are already developed, and our job is to figure out how to answer them. At times, this can be challenging when there are questions that you believe should be asked or are not a current priority. This can be especially challenging for people who have very specific research interests, which may not be a current or consistent priority. Luckily for me, I am easily amused, and I have found that CMS asks endless questions that I am interested in answering.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students who may want to pursue a career in your field?

As a doctoral student, you are being trained almost exclusively by people who opted for careers in academia. It can be extremely difficult to get exposure to jobs outside of academic settings, and sometimes it may feel like academia is the most prestigious career path you can take. There are an overwhelming number of career options that are important, exciting, and worth exploring.

Is there any part of your career path that is only available to U.S. Citizens? Does your company support visas for international scientists?

Mathematica does hire non-U.S. citizens and offers visa sponsorship.

This interview was conducted by Jocelynn Owusu, a PhD candidate in the Department of Mental Health, in collaboration with the Professional Development and Careers Office at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.