Scharff and Bokovoy
 Associate Provost Virginia Scharff, Distinguished Professor of History, and History Department Chair Melissa Bokovoy are working to diversify job opportunities for doctoral history graduates.  
Credit: David Sedillo

The University of New Mexico Department of History, along with the American Historical Association and three other universities, shares in a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation aimed at diversifying job opportunities for those who earn a Ph.D. in history.

Other institutions included in the grant are Columbia, University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Chicago.

“The American Historical Association looks to change the culture surrounding career paths. We are to use our imagination to give doctoral students room to explore different avenues aside from academe,” History Department Chair Melissa Bokovoy said.

“We look to develop a diverse range of skills for our Ph.D. students so that when they go out into the job market, they can deploy historical knowledge on a much wider stage,” said Virginia Scharff, Distinguished Professor of History and associate provost, who will serve as project director for the UNM component of the grant.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Executive Director of the American Historical Association James Grossman explained, “The long-term goal of the effort is to establish a ‘new norm’ in which doctoral graduates in history know how to pursue career opportunities both inside and outside academe, and are encouraged to do so. Success can no longer be defined only by landing a tenure-track job, he said.

"I don’t think history Ph.D.’s are being overproduced," he said. "I think they’re being underutilized.”

UNM’s history department has been innovative in placing its Ph.Ds. “We were defined by the Mellon Foundation as a ‘how to’ school,” Bokovoy said, adding that they have placed graduates in places like the United States Forest Service, Colorado state historian and the editor in chief of the University of Oklahoma Press.

Areas where historians and their research capabilities are needed include workforce development, economic development, public health and historic preservation and regionalism, Scharff said. “In these fields, one needs the analytical tools, as well as the ability to read, digest, synthesize and package historical information for those who need to consume it,” she said.

Bokovoy added, “We will ask employers, ‘Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a historian on your team, bringing great communication and writing skills and an ability to think differently about the world to your organization or firm?’”

UNM has a high non-traditional student population. Some are bound by obligations and, often a desire to remain in state, which makes the traditional model of moving around to gain experience in higher education less desirable, Bokovoy said. “For those who wish to remain in New Mexico, they can leverage their cultural understanding, historical training and expertise to give back to the community in everything from public health to planning.”

“Not all problems can be solved with engineering and science. History and the humanities matter,” Scharff said.

The Department of History has bolstered its ranks by hiring two historians of medicine in conjunction with the BA/MD program. “One is a historian of public health, pregnancy, reproductive and women’s health. This allows us to inform conversations and policy on women’s health,” Scharff said.

Within the history department they are rethinking the curriculum to be more flexible for students to develop skills. “We intend to develop new courses with partners across campus. During the three years of the grant period, the grant will fund student internships, along with a visiting postdoctoral fellow who will work with us on curriculum change, public events, internships and other projects,” Scharff said.

She added that the postdoc will work to develop a placement service that will serve as a pilot for other arts and humanities programs. “The way these students are trained to see and think about the past provides them with the ability to approach the problems of a complex world in different ways – through humanistic and historical perspectives,” Bokovoy said.