Writing A Problem Statement For A Research Paper


  • A problem statement is a clear description of the issue(s), it includes a vision, issue statement, and method used to solve the problem.
  • The 5 'W's can be used to spark the discussion about the problem.
  • A problem statement expresses the words that will be used to keep the effort focused and it should represent a solveable problem.

How to Write a Problem Statement

A problem statement is a clear concise description of the issue(s) that need(s) to be addressed by a problem solving team. It is used to center and focus the team at the beginning, keep the team on track during the effort, and is used to validate that the effort delivered an outcome that solves the problem statement. It has a specific form:

  • Vision - what does the world look like if we solve the problem?
  • Issue Statement - one or two sentences that describe the problem using specific issues. It is not a "lack of a solution" statement. For example, our problem is that we don't have an ERP system.
  • Method - the process that will get followed to solve the problem. For example, DMAIC or Kaizen.

How to get started

The 5 'W's - Who, What, Where, When and Why - is a great tool that helps get pertinent information out for discussion. From the [poem] from Rudyard Kipling's "The Elephant's Child" which opens with:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Who - Who does the problem affect? Specific groups, organizations, customers, etc.

What - What are the boundaries of the problem, e.g. organizational, work flow, geographic, customer, segments, etc. - What is the issue? - What is the impact of the issue? - What impact is the issue causing? - What will happen when it is fixed? - What would happen if we didn’t solve the problem?

When - When does the issue occur? - When does it need to be fixed?

Where - Where is the issue occurring? Only in certain locations, processes, products, etc.

Why - Why is it important that we fix the problem? - What impact does it have on the business or customer? - What impact does it have on all stakeholders, e.g. employees, suppliers, customers, shareholders, etc. Each of the answers will help to zero in on the specific issue(s) and frame the Issue Statement. Your problem statement should be solveable. That is, it should take a reasonable amount of time to formulate, try and deploy a potential solution.


Consider a software development and hosted data services company that supplies products and services to wireless carriers. They had issues deploying new software releases into the production environment. Deployment in this case is the work necessary for taking a production ready binary and installing, testing and releasing it into the production environment. The company failed to deploy the releases on-schedule over 50% of the time.

Problem Statement:

We want all of our software releases to go to production seamlessly, without defects, where everyone is aware and informed of the outcomes and status. (Vision)

Today we have too many release failures that result in too many rollback failures. If we ignore this problem; resources will need to increase to handle the cascading problems, and we may miss critical customer deadlines which could result in lost revenue, SLA penalties, lost business, and further damage to our quality reputation. (Issue Statement)

We will use our Kaizen Blitz methodology in evaluating the last release to help us improve our processes. (Method)


A problem well stated is half solved, Wally Davis taught me that one.  And he's right, the better the clarity around what the team is attempting to fix, the more efficient they'll be in solving the problem, the solution will better 'fix' the issues, and the team can get back to executing the business versus fixing it.

Our experts are trained and well seasoned in defining problem statements and keeping teams on track to deliver results.  Let us help your team get better solving your problems.  Contact us today.

I.  Types and Content

There are four general conceptualizations of a research problem in the social sciences:

  1. Casuist Research Problem -- this type of problem relates to the determination of right and wrong in questions of conduct or conscience by analyzing moral dilemmas through the application of general rules and the careful distinction of special cases.
  2. Difference Research Problem -- typically asks the question, “Is there a difference between two or more groups or treatments?” This type of problem statement is used when the researcher compares or contrasts two or more phenomena. This a common approach to defining a problem in the clinical social sciences or behavioral sciences.
  3. Descriptive Research Problem -- typically asks the question, "what is...?" with the underlying purpose to describe the significance of a situation, state, or existence of a specific phenomenon. This problem is often associated with revealing hidden or understudied issues.
  4. Relational Research Problem -- suggests a relationship of some sort between two or more variables to be investigated. The underlying purpose is to investigate specific qualities or characteristics that may be connected in some way.

A problem statement in the social sciences should contain:

  • A lead-in that helps ensure the reader will maintain interest over the study,
  • A declaration of originality [e.g., mentioning a knowledge void or a lack of clarity about a topic that will be revealed in the literature review],
  • An indication of the central focus of the study [establishing the boundaries of analysis], and
  • An explanation of the study's significance or the benefits to be derived from investigating the research problem.

II.  Sources of Problems for Investigation

The identification of a problem to study can be challenging, not because there's a lack of issues that could be investigated, but due to the challenge of formulating an academically relevant and researchable problem which is unique and does not simply duplicate the work of others. To facilitate how you might select a problem from which to build a research study, consider these sources of inspiration:

Deductions from Theory
This relates to deductions made from social philosophy or generalizations embodied in life and in society that the researcher is familiar with. These deductions from human behavior are then placed within an empirical frame of reference through research. From a theory, the researcher can formulate a research problem or hypothesis stating the expected findings in certain empirical situations. The research asks the question: “What relationship between variables will be observed if theory aptly summarizes the state of affairs?” One can then design and carry out a systematic investigation to assess whether empirical data confirm or reject the hypothesis, and hence, the theory.

Interdisciplinary Perspectives
Identifying a problem that forms the basis for a research study can come from academic movements and scholarship originating in disciplines outside of your primary area of study. This can be an intellectually stimulating exercise. A review of pertinent literature should include examining research from related disciplines that can reveal new avenues of exploration and analysis. An interdisciplinary approach to selecting a research problem offers an opportunity to construct a more comprehensive understanding of a very complex issue that any single discipline may be able to provide.

Interviewing Practitioners
The identification of research problems about particular topics can arise from formal interviews or informal discussions with practitioners who provide insight into new directions for future research and how to make research findings more relevant to practice. Discussions with experts in the field, such as, teachers, social workers, health care providers, lawyers, business leaders, etc., offers the chance to identify practical, “real world” problems that may be understudied or ignored within academic circles. This approach also provides some practical knowledge which may help in the process of designing and conducting your study.

Personal Experience
Don't undervalue your everyday experiences or encounters as worthwhile problems for investigation. Think critically about your own experiences and/or frustrations with an issue facing society, your community, your neighborhood, your family, or your personal life. This can be derived, for example, from deliberate observations of certain relationships for which there is no clear explanation or witnessing an event that appears harmful to a person or group or that is out of the ordinary.

Relevant Literature
The selection of a research problem can be derived from a thorough review of pertinent research associated with your overall area of interest. This may reveal where gaps exist in understanding a topic or where an issue has been understudied. Research may be conducted to: 1) fill such gaps in knowledge; 2) evaluate if the methodologies employed in prior studies can be adapted to solve other problems; or, 3) determine if a similar study could be conducted in a different subject area or applied in a different context or to different study sample [i.e., different setting or different group of people].Also, authors frequently conclude their studies by noting implications for further research; read the conclusion of pertinent studies because statements about further research can be a valuable source for identifying new problems to investigate. The fact that a researcher has identified a topic worthy of further exploration validates the fact it is worth pursuing.

III.  What Makes a Good Research Statement?

A good problem statement begins by introducing the broad area in which your research is centered, gradually leading the reader to the more specific issues you are investigating. The statement need not be lengthy, but a good research problem should incorporate the following features:

1.  Compelling Topic
Simple curiosity is not a good enough reason to pursue a research study because it does not indicate significance. The problem that you choose to explore must be important to you, your readers, and to a the larger academic and/or social community that could be impacted by the results of your study. The problem chosen must be one that motivates you to address it.

2.  Supports Multiple Perspectives
The problem must be phrased in a way that avoids dichotomies and instead supports the generation and exploration of multiple perspectives. A general rule of thumb in the social sciences is that a good research problem is one that would generate a variety of viewpoints from a composite audience made up of reasonable people.

3.  Researchability
This isn't a real word but it represents an important aspect of creating a good research statement. It seems a bit obvious, but you don't want to find yourself in the midst of investigating a complex research project and realize that you don't have enough prior research to draw from for your analysis. There's nothing inherently wrong with original research, but you must choose research problems that can be supported, in some way, by the resources available to you. If you are not sure if something is researchable, don't assume that it isn't if you don't find information right away--seekhelp from a librarian!

NOTE:  Do not confuse a research problem with a research topic. A topic is something to read and obtain information about, whereas a problem is something to be solved or framed as a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution, or explained as a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation.

IV.  Asking Analytical Questions about the Research Problem

Research problems in the social and behavioral sciences are often analyzed around critical questions that must be investigated. These questions can be explicitly listed in the introduction [i.e., "This study addresses three research questions about women's psychological recovery from domestic abuse in multi-generational home settings..."], or, the questions are implied in the text as specific areas of study related to the research problem. Explicitly listing your research questions at the end of your introduction can help in designing a clear roadmap of what you plan to address in your study, whereas, implicitly integrating them into the text of the introduction allows you to create a more compelling narrative around the key issues under investigation. Either approach is appropriate.

The number of questions you attempt to address should be based on the complexity of the problem you are investigating and what areas of inquiry you find most critical to study. Practical considerations, such as, the length of the paper you are writing or the availability of resources to analyze the issue can also factor in how many questions to ask. In general, however, there should be no more than four research questions underpinning a single research problem.

Given this, well-developed analytical questions can focus on any of the following:

  • Highlights a genuine dilemma, area of ambiguity, or point of confusion about a topic open to interpretation by your readers;
  • Yields an answer that is unexpected and not obvious rather than inevitable and self-evident;
  • Provokes meaningful thought or discussion;
  • Raises the visibility of the key ideas or concepts that may be understudied or hidden;
  • Suggests the need for complex analysis or argument rather than a basic description or summary; and,
  • Offers a specific path of inquiry that avoids eliciting generalizations about the problem.

NOTE:  Questions of how and why about a research problem often require more analysis than questions about who, what, where, and when. You should still ask yourself these latter questions, however. Thinking introspectively about the who, what, where, and when of a research problem can help ensure that you have thoroughly considered all aspects of the problem under investigation.

V.  Mistakes to Avoid

Beware of circular reasoning! Do not state that the research problem as simply the absence of the thing you are suggesting. For example, if you propose the following, "The problem in this community is that there is no hospital," this only leads to a research problem where:

  • The need is for a hospital
  • The objective is to create a hospital
  • The method is to plan for building a hospital, and
  • The evaluation is to measure if there is a hospital or not.

This is an example of a research problem that fails the "So What?" test. In this example, the problem does not reveal therelevance of why you are investigating the fact there is no hospital in the community [e.g., there's a hospital in the community ten miles away]; it does not elucidate thesignificance of why one should study the fact there is no hospital in the community [e.g., that hospital in the community ten miles away has no emergency room]; the research problem does not offer an intellectual pathway towards adding new knowledge or clarifying prior knowledge [e.g., the county in which there is no hospital already conducted a study about the need for a hospital]; and, the problem does not offer meaningful outcomes that lead to recommendations that can be generalized for other situations or that could suggest areas for further research [e.g., the challenges of building a new hospital serves as a case study for other communities].

Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. “Generating Research Questions Through Problematization.” Academy of Management Review 36 (April 2011): 247-271; Choosing and Refining Topics. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Ellis, Timothy J. and Yair Levy Nova. "Framework of Problem-Based Research: A Guide for Novice Researchers on the Development of a Research-Worthy Problem." Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline 11 (2008); How to Write a Research Question. The Writing Center. George Mason University; Invention: Developing a Thesis Statement. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Problem Statements PowerPoint Presentation. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Procter, Margaret. Using Thesis Statements. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Trochim, William M.K. Problem Formulation. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006; Thesis and Purpose Statements. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Thesis Statements. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Tips and Examples for Writing Thesis Statements. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Walk, Kerry. Asking an Analytical Question. [Class handout or worksheet]. Princeton University; White, Patrick. Developing Research Questions: A Guide for Social Scientists. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2009.

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