Professor Abigail Millings

Could you tell us about your contribution, Abi?Dr. Abigail Millings

My outstanding contribution is in research and innovation (R&I), and my significant contribution is in external and professional engagement (E&PE). I’m passionate about my research area and ensuring that my work is relevant and useful to society, and so these things feature quite heavily in my contribution. I also consider myself to have been very fortunate in benefiting from some great mentors over the years, and so I try to ‘pay it forward’, and this features a lot in my contribution overall.

I’m a social psychologist and my research explores close relationships and well-being, and how we can use behavioural science to support people’s social well-being. Some of the work I’m proud of is creating a psychometric tool to assess separating parents’ emotional adaptation to their separation, and how that affects their capacity to co-parent effectively. I’m particularly proud of this because it was a collaboration with a third sector group OnePlusOne, inspired by a real-world need, and the tool is now part of OnePlusOne’s digital resources, currently in use across much of England and Wales.

Another key aspect of my R&I contribution is my funding and publications record, both of which are strong. I have secured over £7m in research funding in total. While much of this is as Co-I, I have also demonstrated a sustained contribution as PI, too, both across my career and since joining Sheffield Hallam in 2020. At the point of applying for promotion to Professor I’d published 51 peer-reviewed papers and supervised 13 PGRs to completion, with a further three PhD students ongoing. I was promoted to Associate Professor (AP) in 2022, and so it has been a fast progression to Professor. A lot happened in research income terms in the intervening year – I secured three research grants/contracts from prestigious funders that together brought in £800k.

What does it mean personally to you to be a professor at Hallam?

I’m beyond delighted. I feel that my own research values align exactly with the institutional mission to transform lives, and to do so through collaborative, applied research, so it’s great to feel that my contributions have been recognised in this way.

Tell us a bit about your career story so far.

I did my PhD at the University of East Anglia under the supervision of Dr Judi Walsh. I completed it in 2008 and managed to secure a postdoctoral fellowship from ESRC. This enabled me to go to the University of Bristol and spend a year in Professor Angela Rowe’s lab (2008-9), learning about experimental approaches to social psychology. During this time, we submitted a lot of grant applications, none of which were successful!

I then secured a postdoc position working on a large randomised controlled trial at the University of Bath (2009-2010), and from there, went into industry, working as a Senior Psychologist in a company that created online therapy programmes (2010-2012). This role included working on an EU Framework 7 funded project, which involved a lot of international, interdisciplinary collaboration.

I then secured a Lectureship in Psychology at the University of Sheffield (2013-2020). During this time, my role involved research, teaching and admin. One of my admin roles was Postgraduate Tutor, responsible for the progress and pastoral support of the department’s PhD students. I also did a lot of PhD supervision. I had my two children during my lectureship and was on maternity leave for most of 2017 and late 2019-2020.

I joined Hallam in 2020 as Senior Research Fellow. This was a sideways move (from Grade 8 to Grade 8), and one that allowed me to focus on the aspects of my job that I most enjoyed, which was, and still is, applied research.

In 2022 I was promoted to AP. Immediately after this, I had some relatively ‘big wins’ in research income. This, combined with some very positive feedback I’d received when I’d applied for AP, meant that I felt able to apply for Professor the following year.

If you could go back in time and give yourself some career advice, what would it be?

Having funding bids repeatedly rejected is demoralising. Know that it’s not just about how good your work is. Sometimes you’ll be on trend, sometimes you won’t. Sometimes it’s purely about luck. Find good coping mechanisms and support networks and make sure you are exploring the full range of funders you possibly can (including contract research). You may need to shift your research areas sideways a little to chase the money, but it can be possible to do so in ways that still contributes to a coherent whole if you keep in mind the bigger picture of what you’re interested in.

What’s next? How do you want to further develop your contribution?

My future research plans include building a synthesis of behavioural science and relationships research applied to social well-being, with a focus on intervention. I’m currently doing this through a combination of contract research and PhD student supervision, and this topic also links with my work on separated parents, where I am laying the foundations for a REF Impact Case Study. I also represent the University in the delivery of the £4m ESRC Digital Good Network (DGN). This five-year network involves research agenda setting and capacity building, and I am the lead for resilience across the network, so I will be developing my contributions to digital well-being through my work in the DGN.