How to define your research problem

A research problem is a specific issue, difficulty, contradiction, or gap in knowledge that you will aim to address in your 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.  The type of research problem you choose depends on your broad topic of interest and the type of research you want to do.

This article helps you identify and refine a research problem. When writing your research proposal or introduction, you will have to formulate it as a problem statement and/or research questions.

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.

Whether you’re planning your thesis, starting a research paper or writing a research proposal, the research problem is the first step towards knowing exactly what you’ll do and why.

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.

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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.

Learn how to write a problem statement

Is this article helpful?
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.


cite lopez
October 22, 2020 at 1:00 PM

This is one of the best explanations of how to formulate a research problem I've seen. Thank you so much!


October 20, 2020 at 2:17 PM

Can you please help me with this research topic: is south African's poverty reduction strategies in with a human rights based approach to development?

I don't know how to approach it to get research questions


October 2, 2020 at 6:31 PM

Thank you so much, Shona.
I always come back to your explanations regarding research and how to do it.
You are the best!


October 1, 2020 at 1:01 PM

hii, I would like to ask how to construct issues and research question on position paper? Thank you!


Werenyen JUDE
September 17, 2020 at 2:55 AM

Your articles are very much straight forward and interesting and I will love if you assist me in writing a Research proposal/Hypothesis


Jihad AL_Tayim
October 19, 2020 at 10:14 PM

Thank you so much


Sangram behera
September 15, 2020 at 6:32 PM

Thank you for your recommendation


September 13, 2020 at 11:19 PM

It is a wonderful write up. Very comprehensive. I enjoyed it.


Priyam Dutta
August 23, 2020 at 8:44 PM

Hi Shona,

I am starting out as an intern, the organization I am working in, they are trying to keep things hidden and not giving out any specific problems they are facing and asking me to come up with a project proposal that is beneficial to the organization.
My problem is that my field of research is very practical and industry-specific so all the scholarly articles available are pretty generic and do not state any problem and there are not many resources available too.
Can you help me, what should I do?


July 23, 2020 at 1:49 PM

Hi Shona,
Thank you for the great hints. I am required to explain my research question (what does it mean to someone unfamiliar with this specific discipline) and have gone blank. Have you any tips for me to get started, without the explanation sounding condescending?

RESEARCH QUESTION: To what extent does Design Practice transform the teaching of Visual Communication?


Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
July 29, 2020 at 7:21 PM

Hi Lynn,

I don't know in what context you're required to explain your question, so it depends a bit on the constraints in terms of length and format. But I would suggest first briefly describing current or standard approaches to teaching visual communication; then defining design practice; and finally explaining what you mean by "transform" – what kinds of changes to teaching will your research investigate?


June 23, 2020 at 1:46 PM

Your article helped me a lot, at least I have a know how. Am correcting my proposal, have gained more insight thanks a lot now I can continue with my statement.


Alice kamugisha
June 23, 2020 at 1:25 AM

Your articles are so👌😘 I appreciate you,thank you so much.............Can you help me on How to write a research proposal?


Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
June 23, 2020 at 2:57 PM

Hi Alice,

You're welcome – glad to hear you find these articles helpful! And we do indeed have a full guide to writing a research proposal :)


July 4, 2017 at 3:08 PM

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


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

Hi Hawwa!
You can check an example of a research problem here:
That might help you to define your research problem.


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