As the saying goes, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” This adage certainly applies to scholarly research. Dissertation chairs have long advised students not to have an answer in search of a question—or a study in search of a problem. Finding something interesting does not necessarily make it a good study topic, nor does the fact that someone else has not already investigated that exact topic. Rather, a “good” study is one that is useful—whether for society, a particular population or industry, or for understanding the natural world—and addresses a specific issue, problem, or need. Moreover, one of the most important components of a paper describing a “good” study is one that clearly and succinctly articulates the problem and justifies why it is worthy of study.
A great place to start when constructing a problem statement is, first, to develop a broad, general idea of the subject you might want to investigate. At this stage in the process, it is important not to have a particular research question or methodology in mind. A researcher should never begin a study saying, “I want to conduct a qualitative/quantitative study,” or “I know that [a particular observation] is true, and I can prove it.” Instead, one should think broadly about the topic of interest and explore the recent scholarly literature on the subject.
As you explore, read the abstract of each study and, if it relates closely enough to your topic of interest, take time to review the discussion section of the paper. Readers often skip over the discussion section of a paper in favor of other sections like the methodology or findings. The discussion section, however, usually contains some of the most informative content in an academic paper. Authors not only summarize their research findings and implications, but also frequently offer specific recommendations for future studies that would build upon their work. These authors’ recommendations may also include specific populations or topics that arose during their research and are worthy of further investigation. Once you have reviewed enough articles, you will begin to see some common themes emerge—whether in methodologies, populations, findings, or recommendations.
After gaining an understanding of the scholarly literature and narrowing your focus, you can then begin to craft a problem statement. Just like a purpose statement, the topic sentence of a key paragraph, or your research question, it is important to revisit the sentence several times to make sure it is clear, concise, and provides the key information your readers need to know.
Here are a few final tips that will help you to create an effective problem statement:
1. Make sure you have a clear idea of the “who” (population), “where” (location or context), and “what” (the topic or issue of interest).
2. Try writing about four or five sentences describing what you see as the general problem at hand, which will help you to understand the “why.” Now, ask yourself, “So what?” The answer to this critical question will help you to identify the essence of problem driving your study.
3. Aim to keep your actual problem statement around 25 to 30 words. While you will likely need a paragraph or so to provide the full background and context of the issue you identified in step 1, a lengthy or overly complex problem statement will distract from the focus of your issue and can confuse your reader.
4. After you have written a little bit about the problem you want to study and narrowed the focus to a clear, concise statement, it is necessary to make sure it aligns with your research question and methods. The importance of achieving alignment among these components cannot be overstated. If you fail to do so, your writing will appear disjointed and make it difficult for the reader to follow your study.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Practice making your case as an elevator pitch to peers or colleagues. Regardless of whether you are preparing for a dissertation defense or a conference presentation, the goal is to be perfectly comfortable explaining why your research is relevant, timely, and worthy of study.