Professor Shell obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree from University of Cape Town in 1974. He then went to the U.S. to complete his Master of Arts degree at University of Rochester (1976) and in 1986 he completed his Doctor of Philosophy at Yale University. For his doctoral studies at Yale Robert Shell wrote the dissertation entitled "Slavery at the Cape of Good Hope, 1680–1731" under the advisorship of famed South African historian, Leonard M. Thompson.
From 1968 till 1969 Robert Shell was a trainee computer programmer at ICL (British computer firm). In 1977-1978 he joined South African Cultural History Museum, working as an acting assistant director. During the period of 1986-1987 Mr. Shell served at University of California, Santa Barbara, as a visiting lecturer in African history. In 1988 he was appointed visiting professor of African history at State University of New York College at Oswego. He was a teacher of colonial American history at University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, during 1988-1989.
From 1989 to 1990 Robert Shell was a member of executive committee at Shelby Cullom Davis Center and executive secretary in the years 1991-1992. He acted as an director of African studies from 1989 to 1993 and assistant professor of African history between 1988 and 1996 at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.
Then he worked as lecturer at colleges and universities, including University of London, London, Ontario, Brown University, Rhodes University, and University of Cape Town. He was a guest on radio programs and also a translator from Afrikaans and Dutch. He was a contributor to books, including The Angry Divide, Slavery in South Africa: Captive Labor on the Dutch Frontier, Christianity in South African History; contributor of articles and reviews to history journals, including Canadian Journal of History, lnternational Journal of African Historical Studies, and South African History.