How to Write a Problem Statement | Guide & Examples

A problem statement is a concise and concrete summary of the research problem you seek to address. It should:

  • Contextualize the problem. What do we already know?
  • Describe the exact issue your research will address. What do we still need to know?
  • Show the relevance of the problem. Why do we need to know more about this?
  • Set the objectives of the research. What will you do to find out more?

When should you write a problem statement?

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

In the business world, writing a problem statement is often the first step in kicking off an improvement project. 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. It is often several paragraphs long, and serves as the basis for your research proposal. Alternatively, it can be condensed into just a few sentences in your introduction.

A problem statement looks different depending on whether you’re dealing with a practical, real-world problem or a theoretical issue. Regardless, all problem statements follow a similar process.

Step 1: Contextualize the problem

The problem statement should frame your research problem, giving some background on what is already known.

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 the Southeast has been decreasing steadily over the past ten years, in contrast to other areas of the country. According to surveys conducted by local nonprofits, turnout is lowest among those under 25 years of age. There have been some effective attempts at engaging these groups in other regions, and in the last two elections, major parties increased their campaigning efforts. However, 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 labor market. People under 30 are now more likely to engage in freelance arrangements (rather than full-time jobs) than in the past. Research on the reasons for and consequences of this shift has focused on objective measures of income, working hours, and employment conditions. However, 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 addressed?

Don’t worry, 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? Are similar issues found in other contexts?
Example
Low voter turnout has been shown to have negative associations with overall civic engagement. It 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 the Southeastern US as well, and will 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
Literature on the gig economy characterizes these new forms of employment sometimes 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 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 here should not be to find a conclusive solution, but rather to propose more effective approaches to tackling or understanding it.

The research 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
  • This research aims to investigate

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

  • Qualitative methods will be used to identify
  • This work 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 the Southeast. It will identify the most significant factors in non-voting using surveys and interviews, followed by conducting 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 those under 30 engaged in freelance 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

Problem statement example

You can use these steps to write your own problem statement, like the example below.

Problem statement example

Step 1: Contextualize the problem
A family-owned shoe manufacturer has been in business in New England for several generations, employing thousands of local workers in a variety of roles, from assembly to supply-chain to customer service and retail. Employee tenure in the past always had an upward trend, with the average employee staying at the company for 10+ years. However, in the past decade, the trend has reversed, with some employees lasting only a few months, and others leaving abruptly after many years.

Step 2: Show why it matters
As the perceived loyalty of their employees has long been a source of pride for the company, they employed an outside consultant firm to see why there was so much turnover. The firm focused on the new hires, concluding that a rival shoe company located in the next town offered higher hourly wages and better “perks”, such as pizza parties. They claimed this was what was leading employees to switch. However, to gain a fuller understanding of why the turnover persists even after the consultant study, in-depth qualitative research focused on long-term employees is also needed. Focusing on why established workers leave can help develop a more telling reason why turnover is so high, rather than just due to salaries. It can also potentially identify points of change or conflict in the company’s culture that may cause workers to leave.

Step 3: Set your aims and objectives
This project aims to better understand why established workers choose to leave the company. Qualitative methods such as surveys and interviews will be conducted comparing the views of those who have worked 10+ years at the company and chose to stay, compared with those who chose to leave.

Frequently asked questions about problem statements

How do I write a research objective?

Once you’ve decided on your research objectives, you need to explain them in your paper, at the end of your problem statement.

Keep your research objectives clear and concise, and use appropriate verbs to accurately convey the work that you will carry out for each one.

Example: Verbs for research objectives
I will assess

I will compare

I will calculate

How do I write questions to ask for research?

All research questions should be:

  • Focused on a single problem or issue
  • Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly
  • Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
  • Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly
Writing Strong Research Questions
What is a research objective?

Research objectives describe what you intend your research project to accomplish.

They summarize the approach and purpose of the project and help to focus your research.

Your objectives should appear in the introduction of your research paper, at the end of your problem statement.

What’s an example of a research objective?

Your research objectives indicate how you’ll try to address your research problem and should be specific:

Example: Research objective
To assess the ability of a cobalt-chromium-based alloy knee joint to accommodate impact loads.

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Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.