How to Define a Research Problem | Ideas & Examples

A research problem is a specific issue or gap in existing knowledge that you aim to address in your research. You may choose to look for practical problems aimed at contributing to change, or theoretical problems aimed at expanding knowledge.

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 think will fit best.

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

Why is the research problem important?

Having an interesting topic 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 clear 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 read about your topic, look for under-explored aspects or 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, or talking to people who work in the relevant field or organization. You might look for:

  • Issues with performance or efficiency
  • Processes that could be improved
  • Areas of concern among practitioners
  • Difficulties faced by specific groups of people

Examples of practical research problems

Voter turnout in New England has been decreasing, in contrast to the rest of the country.

The HR department of a local chain of restaurants has a high staff turnover rate.

A non-profit organization faces a funding gap that means some of its programs will have to be cut.

Theoretical research problems

If you are doing theoretical research, you can identify a research problem by reading existing 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

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?
  • Is it a newly-discovered problem, or a well-established one?
  • What research has already been done?
  • What, if any, solutions have been proposed?
  • What are the current debates about the problem? What is missing from these debates?

Specificity and relevance

  • What particular place, time, and/or group of people will you focus on?
  • What aspects will you not be able to tackle?
  • What will the consequences be if the problem is not resolved?

Example of a specific research problem

A local non-profit organization focused on alleviating food insecurity has always fundraised from its existing support base. It 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.

Next steps

Once you have narrowed down your research problem, the next step is to formulate a problem statement, as well as your research questions or hypotheses.

Frequently asked questions about research problems

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 makes a good research question?

Research questions anchor your whole project, so it’s important to spend some time refining them.

In general, they should be:

  • Focused and researchable
  • Answerable using credible sources
  • Complex and arguable
  • Feasible and specific
  • Relevant and original
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.
What’s the difference between research aims and objectives?

A research aim is a broad statement indicating the general purpose of your research project. It should appear in your introduction at the end of your problem statement, before your research objectives.

Research objectives are more specific than your research aim. They indicate the specific ways you’ll address the overarching aim.

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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.