How to define your research problem
After you have settled on a topic for your research, the next step is to narrow it down further and define a research problem: the specific issue, difficulty, contradiction, or gap in knowledge that you will address.
Depending on the type of research, you might look for practical problems aimed at contributing to change, or theoretical problems aimed at expanding knowledge. Bear in mind that some research will do both of these things, but usually the research problem focuses on one or the other.
Why is the research problem important?
Your topic is interesting and you have lots to say about it, but this isn’t a strong enough basis for academic research. Without a well-defined research problem, you are likely to end up with an unfocused and unmanageable project.
You might end up repeating what other people have already said, trying to say too much, or doing research without a clear purpose and justification. You need a problem in order to do research that contributes new and relevant insights.
Step 1: Identify a broad problem area
As you discuss and read about your topic, look for under-explored aspects and areas of concern, conflict or controversy. Your goal is to find a gap that your research project can fill.
Practical research problems
If you are doing practical research, you can identify a problem by reading reports, following up on previous research, and talking to people who work in the relevant field or organization. You might look for:
- Issues with performance or efficiency in an organization
- Processes that could be improved in an institution
- Areas of concern among practitioners in a field
- Difficulties faced by specific groups of people in society
If your research is connected to a job or internship, you will need to find a research problem that has practical relevance for the organization.
Examples of practical research problems
Voter turnout in region X has been decreasing, in contrast to the rest of the country.
Department A of Company B has a high staff turnover rate, affecting productivity and team cohesion.
Non-profit organization Y faces a funding gap that means some of its programs will have to be cut.
Theoretical research problems
Theoretical research focuses on expanding knowledge and understanding rather than directly contributing to change. You can identify a research problem by reading recent research, theory and debates on your topic to find a gap in what is currently known about it. You might look for:
- A phenomenon or context that has not been closely studied
- A contradiction between two or more perspectives
- A situation or relationship that is not well understood
- A troubling question that has yet to be resolved
Theoretical problems often have practical consequences, but they are not focused on solving an immediate issue in a specific place (though you might take a case study approach to the research).
Examples of theoretical research problems
The effects of long-term Vitamin D deficiency on cardiovascular health are not well understood.
The relationship between gender, race and income inequality has yet to be closely studied in the context of the millennial gig economy.
Historians of Scottish nationalism disagree about the role of the British Empire in the development of Scotland’s national identity.
Step 2: Learn more about the problem
Next, you have to find out what is already known about the problem, and pinpoint the exact aspect that your research will address.
Context and background
- Who does the problem affect?
- Has it been an issue for a long time, or is it a newly discovered problem?
- What research has already been done?
- Have any solutions been proposed?
- What are the current debates about the problem, and what do you think is missing from them?
Specificity and relevance
- What particular place, time and/or people will you focus on?
- What aspects will you not be able to tackle?
- What will be the consequences if the problem is not resolved?
- Whose will benefit from resolving the problem (e.g. the management of an organization or future researchers)?
Example of a specific research problem
Non-profit organization X has been focused on retaining its existing support base, but lacks understanding of how best to target potential new donors. To be able to continue its work, the organization requires research into more effective fundraising strategies.
When you have narrowed down your problem, the next step is to formulate a problem statement and research questions or hypotheses.