Finding a Sweet Spot Between Research and Impact

Career Q&A with Maya Buenaventura

Photo styling by Haley Okuley/RAND

May 1, 2023

Maya Buenaventura (cohort '14), recently returned to RAND as a policy researcher (welcome back!). Until this spring, however, she was the senior research manager at the California Policy Lab (CPL), a non-partisan research institute based at the University of California that pairs university experts with state policymakers to solve California's most urgent social issues.

Maya first became interested in improving systems that serve vulnerable populations while working pro-bono as an attorney representing immigrants, victims of trafficking, and victims of domestic abuse. Learning about the interconnected legal, housing, health, and food security issues faced by her pro-bono clients sparked her interest in earning her Ph.D in public policy.

Not long before leaving CPL, Maya spoke with Pardee RAND student Alex Sizemore (’21) about her work there, the pathway that led to her career, and how Pardee RAND helped her along the way.

What kind of work do you do at California Policy Lab?

I wear many different hats in this role. Some of my time I spend setting agendas for meetings where we make sure, for each project, that we’re on track for all our deadlines. We plan the kinds of analyses we need to do in the next month or so, whatever policy paper, academic paper, or grant report we're going to have to write. I write the agenda or run the meetings, to keep the ship running.

I also maintain relationships with our government partners. What are the issues they're thinking about, and how do we translate that into research questions? What data is available, and who can we talk to to answer the research questions? That effort entails scoping with partners, finding new partners, and maintaining relationships.

Although I no longer clean data or analyze data, I'll work with the research director and our executive director to come up with a plan for what kind of analyses or interviews need to do to answer these research questions.

And then one major thing I do, which I think is part of the role but also just my preference, is I write a lot of our grant reports and our policy-focused public-facing reports. I tend to do all that drafting.

So my job really has a little bit of everything. There's research design without being in the data, partner management, and internal management.

Q: Could you tell us about some of your current projects?

A: I do a lot of work on homelessness prevention. There are a lot of programs out there that are run by service providers. We try to figure out whether these programs are working, through data analysis and interviews. I've got a report coming out for a project called Solid Ground. It was a pilot program, so it's more of a process evaluation than an impact evaluation that talks about how it works and best practices.

We also do predictive analytics with de-identified data from seven or eight county departments, like mental health, health services, and social services. A few years ago we developed a "risk list" for the single adult population, a predictive model to see who has the highest risk of homelessness. Now we're working with the county on a pilot program where they take a risk list, re-identify the individuals, and reach out to those who are at risk of homelessness to see what they need. I'm working on two projects that are sort of related to that.

First, we're now trying to do the same sort of thing for foster youth, because there's a huge portion of individuals experiencing homelessness who have histories with the child welfare system. We're trying to use linked county data to see if we can predict which foster youth are at highest risk, and doing interviews with service providers and former foster youth to see what assistance we can provide to foster youth to prevent them from becoming homeless.

And we're also trying to do the same thing for families, using data for families who are participating in CalWorks, the cash assistance program for families. We're in the beginning stages of that. We need to think through, if we do re-identify these families, what can we do to keep them from falling into homelessness? It is really exciting, and hopefully we can do something to make a dent.

Q: Let’s back up a bit. Why did you choose Pardee RAND?

A: I like a circuitous route. [laughs] I went to Northwestern Law School and became a business litigator, and I worked really long hours in a big law firm. But I also did a lot of pro-bono work, which I also did during from my law school days. In law school I helped refugees, usually in their late teens, who were fleeing Central America. When I started at the law firm I did some pro-bono work with victims of domestic violence and trafficking victims.

“It's really satisfying to help one person, sure, but I wanted to help fix the systems that are supposed to serve our community.”

After a few years I realized I couldn’t dedicate my whole life to business litigation. I thought about just going into direct service, like legal work, but whenever I would help one client with one issue, like their immigration needs, I would send them back into a world full of broken systems that weren’t going to help them. They need food but they can't get food stamps. They need housing but they can't get help. It's really satisfying to help one person, sure, but I wanted to help fix the systems that are supposed to serve our community. There are amazing people working in those systems, but there are still ways to improve and things that are kind of broken or backlogged.

I was living in Santa Monica at the time, and I saw RAND, this beautiful building by the water, and I thought, what's this? I looked into it and applied for a Ph.D. at RAND as well as a master of public policy at USC and a master’s program at Princeton. I was super lucky and got in to all three, and I thought, well, I might as well go for the Ph.D., it’s just a year or two years longer!

Q: Can you share a bit about your career pathway after Pardee RAND? How did you go from being an L.A. County management fellow to joining the California Policy Lab?

A: I wanted to do something that I felt was impactful, and I loved RAND. But I wanted to see what it's like “on the ground,” and I saw the L.A. County Management Fellowship, which is modeled on the federal Presidential Management Fellowship. So I thought I’d try it out. I started in Consumer and Business Affairs, a department that at the time was working a lot on decriminalizing street vending. The state had decriminalized street vending and different juristictions had to come up with rules for how they would regulate it.

Sometimes I got to take research and implement programs and help develop different policies to serve the community, and it was cool, I enjoyed a lot of aspects of it. But what often ended up happening was they would send me to community meetings, because there was a need to inform communities about things they weren't necessarily happy about. Around eight months into my fellowship, CPL reached out to me. I wasn't necessarily looking to leave early, but this was a sweet spot between research and impact.

Q: What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your work?

A: Rewarding? Our work with the single adults population. L.A. County, almost a year ago, started reaching out to homeless people who said, “How did you find me? This was a godsend.” We’ve helped people who can’t physically work because they're so uncomfortable, getting special beds for people who might have pain issues, or helping people get financial resources to fix their cars. When I actually see people’s lives getting better, you know, I realize our research is amazing. Those are the most rewarding moments.

And challenging? Well, I'm a manager, so I have to manage up and down, forcing people to meet deadlines. I'm good at it, but I don't necessarily always enjoy it.

Q: How did your time at Pardee RAND prepare you for your career pathway?

“Going through the whole research lifecycle before you even get your post-Ph.D. job, it’s just incredible. I'm so happy I picked Pardee RAND.”

A: Pardee RAND was totally my entry into public policy. A lot of people in my cohort had master’s degrees in public policy or, they’d worked in public policy in some form. I had none of that. But I love that at Pardee RAND you're immediately a public policy researcher. That was my work experience. Having that work and those publications, and being able to just walk through a whole research project and help write the report. Going through the whole research lifecycle before you even get your post-Ph.D. job, it’s just incredible. I'm so happy I picked Pardee RAND.

Q: Do you have any advice for new researchers, things to learn or become familiar with before entering the field?

A: Being really organized is important. It's not too much of a shift, I don't think, for Pardee RAND graduates, because you have to be really organized as a student to maintain your project work and work load. Writing is something people really, really value. And I think this is undervalued when you're getting your Ph.D. or whatever degree you're getting, but listening is more important than talking all the time. Listen and try to remember what people's needs are, what they said and what their priorities are. That’s really important.

Q: Do you have any other advice for current Ph.D. students or young alumni who might be interested in work like yours as they move forward throughout their their time in school and after they graduate?

A: One thing that I did a lot of was informational interviews, often very informal ones where I’d just ask people, “Hey, what do you do?” Also, being able to talk through a project that you've worked on is really important for job interviews. And finally, I guess, explore. I started my manangement fellowship and thought I was going to stay with it for two years. Then I got a totally different job. I see many of my cohort-mates on their second roles already. Some people stay where they started and some people don't. Don’t feel too much pressure to find the exact right fit right when you finish.

About the Author

Selected RAND Research by Maya Buenaventura

View her RAND bio and publications