Finding the right humanities PhD project for you

[This story was published on February 8 on Read the original story at]

Thinking about doing a PhD in the humanities in the future?

Knowing you want to do a PhD is one thing, but knowing what you actually want to write about is often an entire challenge in itself. It’s pretty scary when terms like ‘substantial original’ and ‘contribution to knowledge or understanding’ are used when defining the criteria for your research, so the pressure is really on to find the right topic.

If you have a very clear idea of what you want to research, you’re definitely one of the lucky ones, or you might have a more general view of the type of topic, theme or concepts you’d like to explore. You may only know what subject you’d like to study.

My recommendation for the best way to approach honing your PhD topic is to look for what genuinely interests you, and what you feel deserves more attention. Remember to keep your eyes open for research topics that might not come across your usual academic radar.

My PhD project grew out of my involvement in the fantastic Graylingwell Heritage Project, which was a Heritage Lottery Funded community, heritage and arts programme which charted the history of Chichester’s Graylingwell Hospital.

While working as an administrator and voluntary researcher/oral history interviewer on this project, I became really interested in The Wishing Well, which was a magazine printed and distributed by Graylingwell’s Occupational Therapy department between 1946 until at least 1960. These magazines are currently held at the West Sussex Record Office.


This publication was a creative showcase for the patients of Graylingwell, and includes prose, poetry, and written reports on every facet of Hospital life. Visual art features heavily in these magazines, including paintings, woodcut prints, and cartoons.

A notable aspect of these publications is the commitment of the OT department towards encouraging those being treated at the Hospital to contribute their creative output. Their Editorial team actively requested that patients supply content for a periodical specifically designed to illustrate their artistic achievements, as can be seen in the editorial message in Vol. 17, No. 1 – ‘remember, dear readers, that it is your OWN work that makes the “WISHING WELL” so popular and we should be very grateful for further contributions from you, whatever their nature.’

Prior to the dawn of the National Health Service, any such publications would require approval of the medical superintendent as well as the visiting committee. Their roles would include restricting any ‘undesirable’ material.

Additionally, until the introduction of industrial therapy workshops and printing departments in mental health institutions in the late 1950s, there were little resources for such publications.

Despite this, my preliminary research has shown that magazines such as the Gartloch Magazine were being published in the UK as early as 1903. Other examples from further afield have also been found, some of which date back to the late nineteenth century.
Alongside other in-house low-key periodicals, sometimes overseen by chaplains, there are other examples of patient artwork and writing available in local archives.

I was absolutely fascinated by these publications, and having not heard anything about such patient produced work before, I decided to form my project around piecing together a history of these types of publications, exploring how the existence of these works challenges conventional notions about mental health care treatment in asylums or mental health hospitals.

So by keeping an ear to the ground and staying involved in the ongoing humanities discourse, and you’ll find the perfect topic for your PhD.

You can follow my twitter at @emilyjessturner.

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