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?
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?
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.
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)?
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?
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.