How to write a problem statement

After you have identified a research problem for your project, the next step is to write a problem statement. An effective problem statement is concise and concrete. It should:

  • Put the problem in context (what do we already know?)
  • Describe the precise issue that the research will address (what do we need to know?)
  • Show the relevance of the problem (why do we need to know it?)
  • Set the objectives of the research (what will you do to find out?)

When should you write a problem statement?

There are various situations in which you might have to write a problem statement.

In businesses and other organizations, writing a problem statement is an important step in improvement projects. A clearly defined and well-understood problem is crucial to finding and implementing effective solutions. In this case, the problem statement is usually a stand-alone document.

In academic research, writing a problem statement can help you contextualize and understand the significance of your research problem. A problem statement can be several paragraphs long and serve as the basis for your research proposal, or it can be condensed into just a few sentences in the introduction of your paper or thesis.

The problem statement will look different depending on whether you’re dealing with a practical real-world problem or a theoretical scientific issue. But all problem statements follow a similar process.

Step 1: Contextualize the problem

The problem statement should frame your research problem in its particular context and give some background on what is already known about it.

Practical research problems

For practical research, focus on the concrete details of the situation:

  • Where and when does the problem arise?
  • Who does the problem affect?
  • What attempts have been made to solve the problem?
Example

Voter turnout in region X has been decreasing steadily over the past ten years, in contrast to other areas of the country. According to surveys conducted by organization Y, turnout is lowest among under-25s and people on low incomes. There have been some effective attempts at engaging these groups in other regions, and in the last two elections parties A and B increased their campaigning efforts in region X, but these interventions have yet to have any significant effect on turnout.

Theoretical research problems

For theoretical research, think about the scientific, social, geographical and/or historical background:

  • What is already known about the problem?
  • Is the problem limited to a certain time period or geographical area?
  • How has the problem been defined and debated in the scholarly literature?
Example

In the past ten years, the “gig economy” has become an increasingly important segment of the labour market. Under-30s are more likely to engage in freelance, contracted or zero-hour work arrangements instead of traditional full-time jobs. Research on the reasons for and consequences of this shift has focused on objective measures of income, working hours and employment conditions, but there has been little work exploring young people’s subjective experiences of the gig economy.

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Step 2: Show why it matters

The problem statement should also address the relevance of the research: why is it important that the problem is solved?

This doesn’t mean you have to do something groundbreaking or world-changing. It’s more important that the problem is researchable, feasible, and clearly addresses a relevant issue in your field.

Practical research problems

Practical research is directly relevant to a specific problem that affects an organization, institution, social group, or society more broadly. To make it clear why your research problem matters, you can ask yourself:

  • What will happen if the problem is not solved?
  • Who will feel the consequences?
  • Does the problem have wider relevance (e.g. are similar issues found in other contexts)?
Example

Low voter turnout has been shown to have negative associations with social cohesion and civic engagement, and is becoming an area of increasing concern in many European democracies. When specific groups of citizens lack political representation, they are likely to become more excluded over time, leading to an erosion of trust in democratic institutions. Addressing this problem will have practical benefits for region X and contribute to understanding of this widespread phenomenon.

Theoretical research problems

Sometimes theoretical issues have clear practical consequences, but sometimes their relevance is less immediately obvious. To identify why the problem matters, ask:

  • How will resolving the problem advance understanding of the topic?
  • What benefits will it have for future research?
  • Does the problem have direct or indirect consequences for society?
Example

In the literature on the gig economy, these new forms of employment are sometimes characterized as a flexible active choice and sometimes as an exploitative last resort. To gain a fuller understanding of why young people engage in the gig economy, in-depth qualitative research is required. Focusing on workers’ experiences can help develop more robust theories of flexibility and precarity in contemporary employment, as well as potentially informing future policy objectives.

Step 3: Set your aims and objectives

Finally, the problem statement should frame how you intend to address the problem. Your goal should not be to find a conclusive solution, but to seek out the reasons behind the problem and propose more effective approaches to tackling or understanding it.

The aim is the overall purpose of your research. It is generally written in the infinitive form:

  • The aim of this study is to determine
  • This project aims to explore
  • I aim to investigate

The objectives are the concrete steps you will take to achieve the aim:

  • Qualitative methods will be used to identify
  • I will use surveys to collect
  • Using statistical analysis, the research will measure
Practical research aims and objectives

The aim of this research is to investigate effective engagement strategies to increase voter turnout in region X. It will identify the most significant factors in non-voting through surveys and interviews, and conduct experiments to measure the effectiveness of different strategies.

Theoretical research aims and objectives

This project aims to better understand young people’s experiences in the gig economy. Qualitative methods will be used to gain in-depth insight into the motivations and perceptions of under-30s engaged in freelance and zero-hour work across various industries. This data will be contextualized with a review of recent literature on the gig economy and statistical analysis of demographic changes in the workforce.

The aims and objectives should lead directly to your research questions.

Learn how to formulate research questions

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Shona McCombes

Shona has an MLitt in English Literature and an MA in Gender Studies, so she's an expert at writing a great master's thesis. She has also been an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

6 comments

Guna
July 28, 2018 at 6:08 AM

Good morning madam..
I'm facing difficult in writing problem statement on the topic below.
'the relationship between super brain yoga and emotional intelligence'
Can u please help madam..
Thank you

Reply

Victoria Mrosek
Victoria Mrosek (Scribbr-team)
July 29, 2018 at 11:59 AM

Dear Guna,
Thanks for your comment.
Unfortunately, Scribbr cannot help you writing the problem statement.
But you can find lots of tips on academic writing here: https://www.scribbr.com/category/academic-writing/
Best of luck!

Reply

hannatu makka
July 19, 2018 at 2:34 PM

i am doing a research on a womanist reading of some texts and u can't seem to come up with a suitable statement of the problem

Reply

Denise
Denise (Scribbr-team)
July 21, 2018 at 2:35 PM

Hi Hannatu,

Thank you for your question!
Try to define a research problem about your topic :). You can find more information on how to do that here .

If you have any questions still, you can also talk to us via the chat.

Cheers,
Denise

Reply

Mbuyiseli Lolwana
April 21, 2017 at 3:52 PM

I am doing LLB and doing reasearch methodology as part of my studies. I need help with problem statement , i want to write about the impact of children born out of wedlock, the limitation and frustrations experienced by their fathers to access their children.

Reply

Anna Hoogterp
Anna Hoogterp (Scribbr-team)
April 25, 2017 at 12:33 PM

Dear Mbuyiseli,

Sounds like an interesting topic! Do you have a draft version yet? Then we could take a look at it. You could also talk to us via the chat if you want.

Cheers, Anna

Reply

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