Young Univ Stories: Dr Helena Mills
Geographically, my journey to Univ wasn’t especially long – a shade over 15 miles door to door. However, the journey from Oxfordshire state school to Oxford college was a bit more of a jump.
I was, it’s fair to say, a confident teenager who boldly announced to my history teacher that I was applying to Oxford without having necessarily considered quite what that entailed. Without the support and encouragement of my teachers, I’m sure the process of applying would have been significantly more stressful: my school had little history of Oxford applications. I was fortunate enough to secure a place to study history at Univ – picked as my college after an Open Day where I couldn’t have been more welcomed – so I duly turned up in October 2008. I ended up staying for quite a while.
My three years as an undergraduate were over in a flash, then came the masters and then, following a year working in outreach for another college, came the DPhil. I had a lot of unfinished business with twentieth-century British history! Picking Univ as my college a second and third time was such an easy choice, I don’t think I ever had to consciously think about it. I felt so at home at Univ that I wasn’t ready to give it up at the end of finals, and couldn’t wait to come back for the doctorate.
Three things stand out to me about my Univ experience. First, while I sometimes felt like I’d never understand the Tudors or the post-modernists, I will always associate Univ with my intellectual formation. I learned to think critically, to be curious, and to argue (once I took Catherine Holmes’ advice and stopped writing essays as though they were detective novels with my argument as a denouement!).
Second, I made lifelong friends at Univ. I will always treasure the people I met at Univ and the fun we had together, be they simple things like playing on the quiz machine in the bar, or the more adventurous ones like hiking on a Chalet trip or accidentally ordering a sheep’s head in Morocco.
Third, I spent a lot of time, particularly as an undergraduate, involved in Univ’s outreach work just as it was exploding into life under Anne-Marie Canning (it became a bit of a joke among friends just how much my picture was on the website for a few years and I even got my Finals results by anxiously using a Sheffield school’s library computer during the Outreach Roadshow). Getting involved in outreach gave me a political education, another set of friends, and certainly set me on the course for my future career.
So, where did I go after Univ? While nothing will ever compare to the intellectual challenge of academic research, being an academic ultimately wasn’t for me. My outreach experience combined with my now deep-seated investment in academia led me to the world of higher education policy and I started as a policy adviser at the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2017. Fast forward four years and I am now Head of Policy for the Research Excellence Framework (the national exercise assessing research quality in universities) at UK Research and Innovation. I suppose some might consider me poacher turned gamekeeper (my Univite fiancé who stayed in academia jokes that he does!), but it’s just a different way to contribute to the vibrancy and sustainability of academic research – looking after it, rather than writing it myself.
Dr Helena Mills (2008, BA, MSt & DPhil History) is Head of Policy for the Research Excellence Framework at UK Research and Innovation. Prior to Univ, she attended Bicester Community College. She received an Old Members’ Trust Bursary, a Senior Scholarship and the Burns Scholarship at Univ. Her DPhil was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Published: 10 February 2021