Nicholas McDowell was born and grew up in Belfast, where he was educated at The Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He read English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and then moved to Oriel College, Oxford, to complete M.Phil. and D.Phil. degrees. He was a Research Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, from 1998 before joining the Department of English at the University of Exeter in 2001, where he is now Professor of Early Modern Literature and Director of Research. His visiting positions have included Membership of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.
His principal area of research is the literary, cultural and intellectual history of Britain and Ireland from c. 1500-1780, with particular interests in John Milton, Andrew Marvell and the mid-seventeenth century. He has published essays on writers from Thomas More to Jonathan Swift, and is currently completing an intellectual life of Milton for Princeton University Press.