How to define a research problem for your dissertation

Defining the problem you will address in your research (and why!) is one of the most important steps in writing a dissertation.

A good problem definition will also lead to a clear problem statement and dissertation objective and help you to get to formulate appropriate research questions.

1. Identify a general problem area

Start by identifying a problem you would like to focus on. Depending on your program or field of study, this problem may be more practical or more theoretical in nature. It may also relate to understanding why a certain situation exists.

Example of a practical issue

A high school in Amsterdam is facing a decrease in enrolment due to demographic shifts that cannot be altered. The director is worried that the unrest that is resulting from the uncertainty surrounding contracts for the coming year is disrupting the teachers. She is afraid that if nothing is done, the best teachers will leave and the school’s image will be harmed.

Example of a theoretical issue

The effect of nutrition on athletic performance in children is an underexplored topic.

2. Learn more about the problem

The next step is to research the problem, with the goal of developing the understanding you need to pinpoint the aspect of the problem that you will address in your dissertation.

Depending on the issue, your research may include consulting the literature and other relevant information sources or speaking to experts. As you conduct this research, keep the following questions in mind.

Context

Who has a problem, and when/where does the problem arise? What is the cause of the problem (e.g., does it stem from earlier research or does it relate to a change in some factor)?

Background

What is known about the problem? What do researchers and other individuals involved have to say about it? What has been done to solve the problem? Have any solutions been successful – and if yes, why? Has any cause been focused on in particular?

Specificity

What exactly are you going to help to solve? What will you not tackle?

Relevance

Why is it important for society or the profession to solve the problem? What will happen if it is not solved? Who will feel the consequences?

See an example of a problem definition

Once you have defined your problem, the next step is to create a problem statement. This statement will then serve as the basis for formulating your main research question and sub-questions.

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Bas Swaen

Bas is co-founder of Scribbr. Bas loves to teach and is an experienced thesis writer. He tries to help students with writing clear and easy to comprehend articles about difficult topics.

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2 comments

hawwa
July 4, 2017 at 3:08 PM Edit This

Hello,
I would like to know what is problem in research.
How to articulate a research problem.
thank you.

Reply

Lucy Vleeshouwers
Lucy Vleeshouwers (Scribbr-team)
July 14, 2017 at 5:30 PM Edit This

Hi Hawwa!
You can check an example of a research problem here: https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation-writing-roadmap/example-research-problem-definition/
That might help you to define your research problem.

Reply

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