Professor Alice Bell

Photo of Alice BellTell us a bit about your career story so far.

I joined in 2007 as a lecturer after I’d finished my doctorate at the University of Sheffield. I knew that coming in as a new lecturer I’d be doing lots of teaching, but I always knew I wanted to combine that with research. I was given some time from my department for being an early career academic, which really helped me maintain some research early on.

I published my first book in 2010, based on my doctoral work. I also got some research funding around this time from the Leverhulme Trust and also from the British Academy, which really helped my career. Then, in 2014, I got a really big grant of £234,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which I think helped me get promoted to reader that same year.

So, from 2014 I was Principal Investigator on this really big project. That was an exciting time for me but it’s safe to say things didn’t go completely smoothly. The research itself went well but I had to contend with lots of unexpected circumstances and it did take me out of my comfort zone. But it also made my career in many ways as it developed my research leadership and project management skills, allowed me to work with lots of great people and organisations, and led to some good publications, as well as an Impact Case Study for my department for REF 2021.

Towards the end of the project, around 2017, I got a place on the ASPIRE mentoring scheme. That was another significant step for me because it was my mentor, Professor Peter Wells alongside my colleague Professor Chris Hopkins, who encouraged me to apply for professorship when I didn’t realise I was at that level. I put my application in a few weeks before I went on maternity leave, but wasn’t 100% confident I’d be successful. I was actually on maternity leave when I found out I’d been awarded my professorship.

When I came back from maternity leave in 2018 I started working part-time, four days a week, so that I could change the balance of my work and family life. At first it was hard to adjust my own expectations about how much I could take on. But I can say, hand on heart, I’ve always been strict about my life/work balance, protecting my time and not working when it’s meant to be non-work time. That’s not to say I don’t work hard or that it’s easy to maintain the division, but you have to try to keep that balance.

What does it mean personally to you to be a professor at Sheffield Hallam? What do you value about it?

I always had in my mind that one day I’d be a professor, although I didn’t imagine I’d achieve professorship at this stage. I thought it might happen much further on in my career.

Being a professor has allowed me to work on more research collaborations, and to do more research leadership and project management, all of which I enjoy. I’ve always done some form of collaborative research and think it makes my work stronger.

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

  • Try and get a research grant early on in your career – however small – and build on that. You’ll get loads of good experience from being part of a research project. It will almost certainly give you confidence and stimulate new ideas for the next thing.
  • Be realistic about what you say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to. You can’t do everything and the quality of my work- not to mention my wellbeing – suffers if I take on too much. A wise person once advised me to create a ‘Not Accepted’ folder in my email in which I should put all of the opportunities I declined over the years, mostly because I couldn’t fit them in to my work time. When I look back at it now, there’s only one opportunity I declined that I kind of wish I’d done but that hasn’t hampered my career in any way.
  • Seek out research mentoring at all stages of your career.

Tell us about your work as a professor?

I teach on the English Language degree programme. I also supervise doctoral students which I love – it’s one of my favourite things to do. I really like working with people on something they’ve designed from scratch, seeing them develop that work, and themselves, over the years.

I mentor colleagues too, and I really enjoy that for some of the same reasons, but also because I really benefitted from being mentored myself, so I can give something back.

I contribute to funding bids and write publications and present at conferences internationally. I’m currently putting together a research grant proposal looking at preserving forms of digital fiction that would otherwise be lost. For example, at the end of 2020 Adobe Flash won’t be supported by browsers anymore and there’s loads of digital fiction written in Flash. When that happens all that work will be gone. The project, on which I’ll work with external partners, seeks to rescue Flash fiction by creating a virtual museum. My role will be to lead the project, curate the pieces and write supporting material for the museum.

I’m also about to start writing up the research from the AHRC project I mentioned into a monograph which will focus on how readers cognitively process digital fiction.

Within the university, I’m a member the Humanities Research Forum that makes decisions about research within my department. I’ve also just taken on the role of Unit of Assessment Coordinator for English which means I’ll be working on the REF 2028 submission. Externally I have roles with external bodies. For example, I’m an Executive Council member for the International Society of the Study of Narrative and a Series Editor for Cambridge University Press.