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The first step in research is to outline the research problem – this might be an area of concern, a gap in the existing knowledge or a deviation in something that has been previously established, which warrants further investigation.
Importance of the problem statement
The statement of a problem defines and describes the research hypothesis or question(s), along with the broad method that will be used to solve the problem . The statement of the problem serves as the basis for the introductory section of your project proposal. A well-formulated statement of the problem sets the stage for the rest of your study , including how you will address the problem and any anticipated outcomes or answers. Once you have very clearly laid out the core issue, problem or question that you’re investigating, you’ll have a much sharper focus for conducting and writing up the rest of your study. A clear and straightforward statement will also inform and impress your reader in grasping the issues that your proposed project will address.
Defining the ‘problem’
The research question should be compelling and must have an underlying basis. While formulating the problem statement, as a keen researcher, you should consider the current state of the topic in question, along with any other observations or educated guesses.
As you are defining the ‘problem’ that you are addressing in your research, consider the following questions:
- What is the problem?
- Why is it a problem, and why does it need to be resolved?
- What are the likely benefits of solving the problem?
- Besides the central question, what are smaller, specific questions that need to be asked and answered?
Clarifying and refining the problem statement
In the initial stages of writing, the problem statement might be a bit rough around the edges. A final and more refined form will emerge as you reflect more deeply over the topic and delve into the literature. The current status of the topic , including what is known and what is not , will help you refine your original problem statement to a clearer and more specific one.
Wrapping it up
To conclude the section, briefly summarise the problem and emphasise the need to fix it. All potential advantages and anticipated outcomes and implications should be mentioned here. Contextualising the problem in a broad sense will also strengthen your case.
Sample problem statement
In a detailed project proposal, the statement of the problem could be nearly a page long, over several paragraphs . In a report or paper, the problem is typically expressed in a few sentences in the Introduction . Here is an example based on a fictional study.
Early and targeted warning of dengue outbreaks is critical for vector control. Current studies have primarily focused on the role of weather conditions in dengue forecasting. Environmental and microenvironmental suitability for mosquito breeding has been sorely neglected as a crucial factor, particularly in the urban setting. The surge in dengue and other mosquito-borne infections in India metropolitan cities in 2020–2021 highlights the urgent need to identify conducive features to better track and predict outbreaks. This study proposes a framework for implementing intra-urban dengue forecasting by… Through this investigation, we aim to develop a set of early predictors for improved surveillance of dengue in large urban swathes in Indian metropolitan cities.
Dos and don’ts of writing a problem statement
- Write the actual problem statement as a declarative statement or as a question .
- Explain in the statement how previous studies have not addressed the issue or have fallen short due to certain limitations.
- Outline in your statement how you plan to overcome or circumvent previous roadblocks to fill these deficiencies.
- Ensure the statement is lucid and to the point, without any distracting information.
- Cite credible sources where needed.
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How to Write a Problem Statement in Research
What is a Research Problem Statement?
A research problem statement is a concise statement describing the problem or issue addressed by the research study. The research problem should be composed in a way that both experts and non-experts in the field can understand.
Every research paper describes the investigation of a problem: by adding knowledge to the existing literature, revisiting known observations, or finding concrete solutions. What contribution your publication makes to your field or the scientific community at large depends on whether your research is “basic” (i.e., mainly interested in providing further knowledge that researchers can later apply to specific problems) or “applied” (i.e., developing new techniques, processes, and products).
In any case, a research proposal or research paper must clearly identify and describe the “problem” that is being investigated, so that the reader understands where the research comes from, why the study is relevant, if the applied methods are appropriate, and if the presented results are valid and answer the stated questions. This is known as the “statement of the problem.”
Table of Contents:
- What is a Research Problem?
How to Write a Problem Statement in a Research Paper
- Statement of the Problem Example
- Where Does the Problem Statement Go in Your Paper?
Consider Using Professional Editing Services
Understanding how to write a research problem.
Your research problem defines the gap in existing knowledge you want to address (e.g., global warming causes), an issue with a certain process (e.g., voter registration) or practices (e.g., patient treatment) that is known and well documented and needs a solution, or some surprising phenomena or earlier findings that point to the need for further investigation. Your approach can be theoretical or practical, and the specific type of problem you choose to address depends on the type of research you want to do.
In any case, your paper should not repeat what other studies have already said. It also should not ask a question that is too broad in scope to be answered within your study, nor should it be so vague that your reader cannot grasp your motivation or focus. To avoid such problems, you need to clearly define your research question, put it into context, and emphasize its significance for your field of research, the wider research community, or even the general public.
When including your statement of the research problem, several key factors must be considered in order to make a statement that is clear, concise, relevant, and convincing to readers. Think about the following elements not as “steps” to writing your problem statement, but as necessary conditions on which your statement can be firmly grounded and stand out.
Provide context for your study
Putting your research problem in context means providing the reader with the background information they need to understand why you want to study or solve this particular problem and why it is relevant. If there have been earlier attempts at solving the problem or solutions that are available but seem imperfect and need improvement, include that information here.
If you are doing applied research, this part of the problem statement (or “research statement”) should tell the reader where a certain problem arises and who is affected by it. In basic or theoretical research, you make a review of relevant literature on the topic that forms the basis for the current work and tells the reader where your study fits in and what gap in existing knowledge you are addressing.
Establish the relevance of this research
The problem statement also needs to clearly state why the current research matters, or why future work matters if you are writing a research proposal. Ask yourself (and tell your readers) what will happen if the problem continues and who will feel the consequences the most. If the solution you search for or propose in your study has wider relevance outside the context of the subjects you have studied, then this also needs to be included here. In basic research, the advancement of knowledge does not always have clear practical consequences—but you should clearly explain to the reader how the insights your study offers fit into the bigger picture, and what potential future research they could inspire.
Define specific aims and Objectives
Now that the reader knows the context of your research and why it matters, briefly introduce the design and the methods you used or are planning to use. While describing these, you should also formulate your precise aims more clearly, and thereby bring every element in your paper together so that the reader can judge for themselves if they (a) understand the rationale behind your study and (b) are convinced by your approach.
This last part could maybe be considered the actual “statement of the problem” of your study, but you need to prepare the reader by providing all the necessary details before you state it explicitly. If the background literature you cite is too broad and the problem you introduced earlier seems a bit vague, then the reader will have trouble understanding how you came up with the specific experiments you suddenly describe here. Make sure your readers can follow the logical structure of your presentation and that no important details are left out.
Research Problem Statement Example
The following is a sample statement of the problem for a practical research study on the challenges of online learning. Note that your statement might be much longer (especially the context section where you need to explain the background of the study) and that you will need to provide sources for all the claims you make and the earlier literature you cite. You will also not include the headers “context”, “relevance” and “aims and objectives” but simply present these parts as different paragraphs. But if your problem statement follows this structure, you should have no problem convincing the reader of the significance of your work.
Providing context: Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, most educational institutions around the world have transitioned to a fully online study model, at least during peak times of infections and social distancing measures. This transition has not been easy and even two years into the pandemic, problems with online teaching and studying persist (reference needed) . While the increasing gap between those with access to technology and equipment and those without access has been determined to be one of the main challenges (reference needed) , others claim that online learning offers more opportunities for many students by breaking down barriers of location and distance (reference needed) .
Establishing relevance: Since teachers and students cannot wait for circumstances to go back to normal, the measures that schools and universities have implemented during the last two years, their advantages and disadvantages, and the impact of those measures on students’ progress, satisfaction, and well-being need to be understood so that improvements can be made and demographics that have been left behind can receive the support they need as soon as possible.
Defining aims and objectives: To identify what changes in the learning environment were considered the most challenging and how those changes relate to a variety of student outcome measures, we conducted surveys and interviews among teachers and students at ten institutions of higher education in four different major cities, two in the US (New York and Chicago), one in South Korea (Seoul), and one in the UK (London). Responses were analyzed with a focus on different student demographics and how they might have been affected differently by the current situation.
Where Does the Problem Statement Go in Your Paper?
If you write a statement of the problem for a research proposal, then you could include it as a separate section at the very beginning of the main text (unless you are given a specific different structure or different headings, however, then you will have to adapt to that). If your problem statement is part of a research paper manuscript for publication in an academic journal, then it more or less constitutes your introduction section , with the context/background being the literature review that you need to provide here.
If you write the introduction section after the other parts of your paper, then make sure that the specific research question and approach you describe here are in line with the information provided in the research paper abstract , and that all questions you raise here are answered at the end of the discussion section —as always, consistency is key. Knowing where to put the research question can depend on several important contextual factors.
Receive instant editing with Wordvice.AI, our automated grammar checker . Then hand over your manuscript or paper to a professional English editing service for paper editing , thesis editing , or other academic editing services .
And if you need advice on how to write the other parts of your research paper , on how to make a research paper outline if you are struggling with putting everything you did together, or on how to come up with a good research question in case you are not even sure where to start, then head over to the Wordvice academic resources website where we have a lot more articles and videos for you.
- Research Process
What is a Problem Statement? [with examples]
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Table of Contents
The statement of the problem is one of the first things that a colleague or potential client will read. With the vastness of the information available at one’s fingertips in the online9 world, your work may have just a few seconds to draw in a reader to take a deeper look at your proposal before moving on to the next option. It explains quickly to the reader, the problem at hand, the need for research, and how you intend to do it.
A strong, clear description of the problem that drew you to your research has to be straightforward, easy to read and, most important, relevant. Why do you care about this problem? How can solving this problem impact the world? The problem statement is your opportunity to explain why you care and what you propose to do in the way of researching the problem.
A problem statement is an explanation in research that describes the issue that is in need of study . What problem is the research attempting to address? Having a Problem Statement allows the reader to quickly understand the purpose and intent of the research. The importance of writing your research proposal cannot be stressed enough. Check for more information on Writing a Scientific Research Project Proposal .
It is expected to be brief and concise , and should not include the findings of the research or detailed data . The average length of a research statement is generally about one page . It is going to define the problem, which can be thought of as a gap in the information base. There may be several solutions to this gap or lack of information, but that is not the concern of the problem statement. Its purpose is to summarize the current information and where a lack of knowledge may be presenting a problem that needs to be investigated .
The purpose of the problem statement is to identify the issue that is a concern and focus it in a way that allows it to be studied in a systematic way . It defines the problem and proposes a way to research a solution, or demonstrates why further information is needed in order for a solution to become possible.
What is Included in a Problem Statement?
Besides identifying the gap of understanding or the weakness of necessary data, it is important to explain the significance of this lack.
-How will your research contribute to the existing knowledge base in your field of study?
-How is it significant?
-Why does it matter?
Not all problems have only one solution so demonstrating the need for additional research can also be included in your problem statement. Once you identify the problem and the need for a solution, or for further study, then you can show how you intend to collect the needed data and present it.
How to Write a Statement of Problem in Research Proposal
It is helpful to begin with your goal. What do you see as the achievable goal if the problem you outline is solved? How will the proposed research theoretically change anything? What are the potential outcomes?
Then you can discuss how the problem prevents the ability to reach your realistic and achievable solution. It is what stands in the way of changing an issue for the better. Talk about the present state of affairs and how the problem impacts a person’s life, for example.
It’s helpful at this point to generally layout the present knowledge and understanding of the subject at hand, before then describing the gaps of knowledge that are currently in need of study. Your problem statement is a proposed solution to address one of these gaps.
A good problem statement will also layout the repercussions of leaving the problem as it currently stands. What is the significance of not addressing this problem? What are the possible future outcomes?
Example of Problem Statement in Research Proposal
If, for example , you intended to research the effect of vitamin D supplementation on the immune system , you would begin with a review of the current knowledge of vitamin D’s known function in relation to the immune system and how a deficiency of it impacts a person’s defenses.
You would describe the ideal environment in the body when there is a sufficient level of vitamin D. Then, begin to identify the problems associated with vitamin D deficiency and the difficulty of raising the level through supplementation, along with the consequences of that deficiency. Here you are beginning to identify the problem of a common deficiency and the current difficulty of increasing the level of vitamin D in the blood.
At this stage, you may begin to identify the problem and narrow it down in a way that is practical to a research project. Perhaps you are proposing a novel way of introducing Vitamin D in a way that allows for better absorption by the gut, or in a combination with another product that increases its level in the blood.
Describe the way your research in this area will contribute to the knowledge base on how to increase levels of vitamin D in a specific group of subjects, perhaps menopausal women with breast cancer. The research proposal is then described in practical terms.
How to write a problem statement in research?
Problem statements differ depending on the type and topic of research and vary between a few sentences to a few paragraphs.
However, the problem statement should not drag on needlessly. Despite the absence of a fixed format, a good research problem statement usually consists of three main parts:
Context: This section explains the background for your research. It identifies the problem and describes an ideal scenario that could exist in the absence of the problem. It also includes any past attempts and shortcomings at solving the problem.
Significance: This section defines how the problem prevents the ideal scenario from being achieved, including its negative impacts on the society or field of research. It should include who will be the most affected by a solution to the problem, the relevance of the study that you are proposing, and how it can contribute to the existing body of research.
Solution: This section describes the aim and objectives of your research, and your solution to overcome the problem. Finally, it need not focus on the perfect solution, but rather on addressing a realistic goal to move closer to the ideal scenario.
Here is a cheat sheet to help you with formulating a good problem statement.
1. Begin with a clear indication that the problem statement is going to be discussed next. You can start with a generic sentence like, “The problem that this study addresses…” This will inform your readers of what to expect next.
2. Next, mention the consequences of not solving the problem . You can touch upon who is or will be affected if the problem continues, and how.
3. Conclude with indicating the type of research /information that is needed to solve the problem. Be sure to reference authors who may have suggested the necessity of such research.
This will then directly lead to your proposed research objective and workplan and how that is expected to solve the problem i.e., close the research gap.
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Research Problem Statement — Find out how to write an impactful one!
Table of Contents
What Is a Research Problem Statement?
A research problem statement is a clear, concise, and specific statement that describes the issue or problem that the research project addresses. It should be written in a way that is easily understandable to both experts and non-experts in the field.
To write a research problem statement, you should:
- Identify the general area of interest: Start by identifying the general area of research that interests you.
- Define the specific problem: Narrow down the general area of interest to a specific problem or issue.
- Explain the significance of the problem: Provide context for the problem by explaining why it is important to study and what gap in current knowledge or understanding it fills.
- Provide a clear and concise statement: State the problem in a clear and concise manner, making sure to use language that is easily understood by your intended audience.
- Use a scientific and objective tone: The problem statement should be written in a neutral and objective tone, avoiding any subjective language and personal bias .
An Example of a Research Problem Statement
“The increasing prevalence of obesity in children is a growing public health concern. Despite the availability of information on healthy eating and physical activity, many children are still not engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors. The problem this study addresses is the lack of understanding of the barriers and facilitators to healthy lifestyle behaviors in children.”
When to Write a Problem Statement in Research?
A research problem statement should be written at the beginning of the research process, before any data collection or analysis takes place. This is because the statement sets the foundation for the entire research project by clearly defining the problem that the research is trying to address.
Writing a problem statement early in the research process helps to guide the research design and methodology , and ensures that the research is focused on addressing the specific problem at hand. It also helps to ensure that the research is relevant and addresses a gap in current knowledge or understanding.
In addition, a well-written problem statement effectively communicates the purpose and significance of the research to potential funders, collaborators, and other stakeholders. It also generates interest and support for the research project.
It’s also important to note that, during the research process, the statement can be refined or updated as new information is discovered or as the research progresses. This is normal and it’s a good idea to revise the statement as needed to ensure that it remains clear and concise and that it accurately reflects the current focus of the research project.
What Does a Research Problem Statement Include?
A research problem statement typically includes the following elements:
1. The research topic:
The general area of interest or field of study that the research project addresses.
2. The specific problem or issue:
A clear and concise statement of the problem or issue that the research project aims to address.
3. The significance of the problem:
A discussion of why the problem is important and what gap in current knowledge or understanding it fills.
4. The research questions:
A set of questions that the research project aims to answer, in order to address the problem or issue.
5. The research objectives:
A set of specific and measurable objectives that the research project aims to achieve.
6. The scope of the research:
A description of the specific population, setting, or context that the research project will focus on.
7. The theoretical framework:
A discussion of the theoretical concepts and principles that inform the research project.
8. The research design:
A description of the research methodologies that will be used to collect and analyze data in order to address the research questions and objectives.
It’s important to note that the problem statement is usually brief and concise, typically a few sentences or a short paragraph. But it should provide enough information to convey the main idea of the research project.
Important Features of Research Problem Statement
The problem statement should be clear and easy to understand. Write it in a way that is accessible to both experts and non-experts in the field.
The statement should be specific and clearly define the problem or issue that the research project aims to address. It should be narrow enough to be manageable, but broad enough to be of interest to others in the field.
The statement should explain why the problem is important and what gap in current knowledge or understanding it fills. It should provide context for the research project and help to justify its importance.
The statement should be relevant to the field of study and address an issue that is currently of concern to researchers.
5. Research questions
The statement should include a set of research questions that the research project aims to answer in order to address the problem or issue.
6. Research objectives
The statement should include a set of specific and measurable objectives that the research project aims to achieve.
The statement should define the specific population, setting, or context that the research project will focus on.
8. Theoretical framework
The statement should provide an overview of the theoretical concepts and principles that inform the research project.
9. Research design
The statement should provide an overview of the research methodologies. This will be useful collect and analyze data in order to address the research questions and objectives.
Difference Between a Thesis Statement and a Problem Statement
A thesis statement and a problem statement are related but distinct elements of a research project.
A thesis statement is a statement that summarizes the central argument or claim of a research paper or essay. It presents the main idea of the paper and sets the direction for the rest of the content. It’s usually located at the end of the introduction, and it’s often one sentence.
A problem statement, on the other hand, is a statement that describes a specific problem or issue that the research project aims to address. It sets the foundation for the entire research project by clearly defining the research problem. It is usually located at the beginning of a research paper or proposal, and is of one or a few paragraphs.
In summary, a thesis statement is a summary of the main point or key argument of the research paper. A problem statement describes the specific issue that the research project aims to address. A thesis statement is more focused on the final outcome of the research. While a problem statement is focused on the current state of knowledge and the gap in understanding that the research project aims to fill.
A problem statement is a critical component of the research project, as it provides a clear and concise roadmap for the research, and helps to ensure that the research is well-designed and addresses a significant and relevant issue.
We hope this blog has clarified your doubts and confusion associated with research problem statement and helps you write an effective statement for your research project!
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- How to Write a Problem Statement | Guide & Examples
How to Write a Problem Statement | Guide & Examples
Published on November 6, 2022 by Shona McCombes and Tegan George. Revised on May 31, 2023.
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?
Table of contents
When should you write a problem statement, step 1: contextualize the problem, step 2: show why it matters, step 3: set your aims and objectives.
Problem statement example
Other interesting articles
Frequently asked questions about problem statements.
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.
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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?
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?
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 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?
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?
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 …
The aims and objectives should lead directly to your research questions.
Learn how to formulate research questions
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You can use these steps to write your own problem statement, like the example below.
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.
If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Sampling methods
- Simple random sampling
- Stratified sampling
- Cluster sampling
- Likert scales
- Null hypothesis
- Statistical power
- Probability distribution
- Effect size
- Poisson distribution
- Optimism bias
- Cognitive bias
- Implicit bias
- Hawthorne effect
- Anchoring bias
- Explicit bias
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.
I will compare …
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
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 .
Your research objectives indicate how you’ll try to address your research problem and should be specific:
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How to Write a Statement of the Problem for Your Research Proposal
Defining your research problem is essential when conducting an experiment. In this article, you will learn how to write a statement of the problem for your research proposal. Learn about the characteristics of a good statement of the problem and examples of research questions.
Updated on May 17, 2022
You are a great researcher. You are full of ideas and questions as to where to go next with your work. You would not be in this position if you were not good at coming up with interesting questions within your area.
One problem, though, is knowing where to spend your time, energy, and money. Which ideas, questions, and problems are worthwhile?
You need to be able to define a good research problem. A research problem addresses an existing gap in knowledge in your field and leads to further investigations by you and other researchers. Inspiring others with your research problem will lead to citations, enhancing your and your institution's impact.
In order to write a clear and useful problem statement, you need to describe a question and its consequences.
One key way to assess the ‘usefulness' of your research ideas is to learn how to express them as clear problems.
In this article, we will talk about how to write a statement of the problem for your next research proposal. This is important not just for assessing the ‘usefulness' of research ideas, but also for formulating a grant application or proposal. We'll talk about how to explain your research ideas to others in the form of a problem statement in your proposal.
What is a statement of the problem in research?
All research projects should start with a clear problem statement. A problem statement is a formulation of an issue which is usually a ‘gap' within your area. A research gap is an unanswered question, an issue, controversy, or untested hypothesis that has not yet been addressed.
The trick with research problems is working out whether they are actually worth investing the time, energy, and money to figure out. This comes with experience, or you could just read on!
Since a clear problem statement is going to form the basis of your next research project, the question is: How can I write one?
How is this done? The first step is to become familiar with the basic elements of a problem statement in effective research.
Characteristics of a problem statement
A research problem statement has two key attributes:
- The problem must be challenging and original, but also potentially achievable by your team.
- The problem must not be incremental. In other words, don't try to address a small change or advance on an existing study that leads to no new scientific insight. This could be damaging to your and your team's reputation, and will likely not lead to a meaningful publication.
Developing a ‘good' research problem statement, therefore, involves systematic planning and setting time-based, realistic objectives. Your problem has to be achievable.
You'll also need to apply feasible research methods based on an approach that best suits the research question. Your methods have to make sense. They must be usable. In other words, you must be able to acquire statistically sufficient and relevant data that is reproducible.
Finally, the problem you define means you'll need to train team members in this particular research area and methods.
Writing a statement of the problem
Stating a research problem is done by defining it within the general area of your research. This depends on your previous work and experience. It may be an area you want to move into or a topic related to what you have already worked on as a researcher. Examples could include a question in astrophysics within physics, robotics within engineering, nutrition within medicine, or marine biology within ocean and Earth science.
Once you've determined your overall area (and you'll know this already of course), it's time to drill down, decide, and define a research problem within that field.
First , your statement should identify a problem that needs to be addressed within your selected sub-area.
This will almost certainly require literature work, but the idea may arise from:
- Discussions you've had with colleagues;
- Discussions at a conference;
- A paper you've read.
Second , your problem statement should be a “good research problem.” This will require further investigation and reading as you consider “what has been done?” and “what needs to be done?”
Third , search for more information, perhaps by:
- Locating relevant books, papers and other materials;
- Evaluating the quality and authority of the information collected;
- Maintaining a regular literature review throughout the project;
- Making regular notes on background material;
- Deciding how this literature search will be carried out within the research group;
- Deciding how information gained will be disseminated to the group (e.g., via each researcher carrying out a regular literature review in their sub-area and information disseminated at group meetings or via email at regular intervals).
This process may well change or modify how your research problem is stated or formulated.
Once your research problem has been identified, research questions within the problem need to be specified.
How long should your statement of the problem be?
Not too long. One page is more than enough for a clear and effective problem statement.
Research questions within your problem
The first stage of writing your research problem statement involves formulating your questions in a meaningful way. In the context of important questions, we are looking for things that many readers across different disciplines find to be interesting. But at the same time, set your question within your field.
Thus, once a research problem has been established, several questions can be written down. These questions should specify exactly what needs to be determined to address the problem.
These questions should also be specific enough that they can be answered using appropriate available research methods - or methods that could be made available to the research group (e.g. by buying or borrowing equipment).
These questions should require complex in-depth investigation, analysis, and argument. They should not be simple enough that they can be answered easily with well-established facts or yes/no answers.
All research questions should be focused, specific, appropriately complex, and relevant to the overall aims of the project.
Examples of questions and next steps
- How do government regulations prevent companies from polluting water systems?
- What factors have influenced population growth in the fastest growing countries?
- How can a bespoke thermal desorption unit be designed and built for use in detection of trace particulate matter in a polluted environment (e.g., a busy city street)?
- What methods and procedures can be used to understand, and hence control, fundamental chemical processes that occur in flames?
- How can measurement protocols used in mass spectrometry in a university research laboratory be developed and standardized to enable direct comparison with related measurements in a government laboratory?
Once the problem and questions have been identified, the resources required to carry out the research will need to be assessed. This will involve:
- Identifying the equipment needed. Find out what is available and what needs to be purchased.
- Assessing which consumables (e.g., chemicals) are needed for the project, and determining if they can be obtained on a regular basis (i.e., in the right quantities at the appropriate times).
- Identifying the software, data-analyses and other computer support needed. Assess what needs to be purchased.
- Assessing what laboratory and office space is needed. And if more is required, discuss this with the relevant laboratory manager.
- Identifying what support for travel is needed for the group, as well as what resources are required for the group to attend relevant conferences and training of group personnel.
Defining and writing a clear statement of a problem as the basis of a project is the first - and most important - step in any research. The tips and ideas in this article will help you clearly identify the purpose of the research you are developing.
A clear research problem statement will likely form the skeleton of the Introduction of your final article. If you are able to clearly direct your reader (the most important person in the publishing process) to an important and interesting question, they will likely stay engaged, and use and cite your article in the future.
The AJE Team
- How to Write a Problem Statement for your Research
Every research starts with identifying a problem which is usually an existing gap in your field of study. Once you do this, the next step is to craft a statement of the problem that captures this issue and how you plan to resolve it. A statement of problem forms the basis of every systematic investigation.
Seeing as a problem statement forms the core of your research, it makes sense to know how to write an effective one. So how do you go about this? First, you need to get acquainted with the features of a good problem statement plus its elements and structure.
Use this guide to know how to write an effective statement of the problem for your systematic investigation.
What is the Statement of the Problem in Research?
A statement of problem refers to the critical issue that your research seeks to address. In other words, it captures the existing knowledge gap that your study aims to bridge using reliable results or outcomes. A problem statement can be as little as a few sentences or go all the way to several paragraphs—what matters is it communicates the central focus of your study.
As your study bridges this gap, it also leaves room for future investigations. The implication is that your problem statement should not be too broad; instead, it should address one specific issue and contribute to the knowledge pool for further research.
Use for Free: Research Form Templates
What are the Features of a Good Problem Statement?
A good problem statement captures the core purpose of your study in simple, clear, and direct terms. Some other tell-tale signs of a well-written research statement of problem include:
- A good problem statement is concrete and concise. It doesn’t capture ideas vaguely or ambiguously.
- It allows you to contextualize the research problem.
- A good problem statement helps you to set the aims and objectives of your systematic investigation.
- It justifies your research and draws attention to the study’s significance.
Why is a Problem Statement Important in Research Writing?
Writing a good problem statement serves both the researcher and the readers. For the researcher, the problem statement helps you visualize the scope of your project and outline it accordingly. Also, it allows you to map out specific aims and objectives for your study.
On the flip side, the problem statement helps the reader identify the core reason for your research and see how your work fits into the existing body of knowledge. It helps them get on the same page as you regarding the importance and significance of your systematic investigation.
If you require funding for your research, a problem statement can help potential financiers to see why investing in your project is the right move to make. It gives them an overview of the existing problem, your solution, and the impact of your solution on the field of study.
Elements and Structure of a Problem Statement
In its most basic form, a problem statement comprises three(3) elements which are:
- The research problem
- The claim or working thesis
- The significance of the study
In other words, it tells the reader what you’re trying to solve, how you plan to solve it, and why you want to solve it.
1. The Research Problem
Your research problem is the reason for your systematic investigation. It is the gap you identified and planned to fill based on the results of your study. You can also think of this as the primary research question.
A few questions you should ask yourself here include:
- Is it clear what’s being described in this problem statement?
- Do I understand the main problem being described here?
- Do I have a good grasp of what the main issue is here?
2. The Claim or Working Thesis
Your working thesis is the first attempt at asserting your position, and it spells out your stance on the matter at a specific point in time. It’s called a “working” thesis because it is subject to change as your study progresses. In your working thesis, you have the chance to justify your position by providing primary and secondary claims that support your position.
3. The Significance of the Study
This is the point where you communicate the value of your research and show readers why it is necessary in the first place. Here, you can discuss the impact of your work and its relevance to your field of study. Don’t forget to highlight the contributions of your work to existing knowledge and how others will benefit from it.
Read: Research Report: Definition, Types + [Writing Guide]
What is the Difference Between a Thesis Statement and a Problem Statement?
A problem statement focuses on the specific issue you’ve identified and hope to resolve with your research. It comprises the research problem, claim, or working statement and the significance of your research. On the other hand, a thesis statement makes a specific claim or assertion open for debate.
For example, the statement “writing is more of a science than an art” is an excellent example of a thesis statement because it proposes an idea that may be true or false. Once you establish the thesis statement for your research, you are expected to provide evidence and build a strong argument that supports this claim.
What are the Steps for Writing a Problem Statement?
- Define Your Research Context
- State Why The Problem Matters
- State the Financial Cost
- Back Up Your Claims
- Propose A Solution
- Conclude By Summarizing the Problem and Solution
1. Define Your Research Context
The first thing you need to do is build a solid context that makes it easier for readers to understand the problem. A hack for this is to describe an ideal world where the problem doesn’t exist. In other words, help your readers to visualize how different things would be if they didn’t have to deal with this problem in the first place.
For example, if you’re researching the rise in the number of train accidents in London, start by describing how the process would function if the current problem didn’t exist. When you’ve done this, you can refer to the research problem at the end of your explanation.
2. State Why the Problem Matters
You should let readers in on why the problem matters and why you must address it at this point. In other words, answer the question, “why is it important that we fix this particular problem?” What difference would it make?
Your job here is to show the reader why your research problem is the biggest elephant in the room. You may also consider including what attempts have already been made to solve the problem and why they didn’t work out.
3. State the Financial Cost
If there’s a financial implication of not fixing the problem, then it’s a good idea to state it here. This is more useful if you’re pitching for funding for your research.
4. Back Up Your Claims
It’s not enough to say that the problem has some negative impact on other people or your organization; you must back up all of these claims with well-researched data. This is the point where you pull up information from relevant secondary data sources and reference them in your work.
5. Proffer a Solution
Now that we know the problem, the next question is, “what can be done about it”? To answer this, you need to propose a practical solution to the research problem. Take time to demonstrate why this is the most pragmatic solution and why it will work. More importantly, focus on the impact of your solution and hint at its benefits.
6. Conclude By Summarizing the Problem and Solution
Your conclusion should consist of the problem, why it needs to be fixed, and a summarized argument of why your solution is the best answer to the problem.
Sample Problem Statement
Problem : The use of hard drugs amongst teenagers in the District of Columbia has increased significantly over the past decade.
Background : According to the Drug Abuse Statistics Organization data, 50% of teenagers have misused a drug at least once. Teenagers in the District of Columbia are 11.94% more likely to have used drugs in the last month than the average American teen. Existing data shows that this is a significant problem but fails to address the root causes of rising teenage drug abuse in the state. Therefore, more research is required to identify why teenagers in Colombia abuse drugs and proffer solutions to this menace.
Relevance : Young people who abuse drugs expose themselves to many risks, including life-threatening conditions and mental health-related problems. Drug abuse can impact the brain’s ability to function in the short term and prevent proper growth and development in the long term. Data shows that teenagers who use hard drugs are more likely to be disillusioned. Addressing this problem will give concerned parties the much-needed insights to help them curtail drug abuse.
Objectives : This research aims to identify the root causes of teenage drug abuse and map out actionable solutions to address this.
Mistakes to Avoid when Writing Problem Statements
A good problem statement sets the tone for the rest of your dissertation, so you want to get it right. That said, here are some things you should have at the back of your mind as you craft a problem statement for your research paper.
1. Make sure your problem statement is straight to the point. Every sentence should reinforce the importance of your study.
2. Narrow the scope of your problem statement.
3. Avoid unnecessary jargon and highly technical language.
4. Build a logical argument that will convince the reader
5. Emphasize the “why” of the problem
FAQ About Writing a Statement of the Problem
How do you identify a research problem?
The best way to identify a research problem is to read through existing studies to discover any gaps in knowledge. You can also discover research problems by observing your environment and identifying any contradictions that exist among perspectives.
Whether you’re seeking funding for your research or approval from your professor, you need to write a well-defined statement of the problem. A problem statement allows you to pitch the core idea of your study and show others why it is worth being addressed. It should draw attention to the core idea of your research, and convince others to invest in your systematic investigation.
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- abstract in research papers
- Applied research methods
- problem statements
- research context
- research problems
- research report
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- Chapter 1: Home
- Narrowing Your Topic
Problem Statement Overview
How to write a problem statement.
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Jump to DSE Guide
The dissertation problem needs to be very focused because everything else from the dissertation research logically flows from the problem. You may say that the problem statement is the very core of a dissertation research study. If the problem is too big or too vague, it will be difficult to scope out a purpose that is manageable for one person, given the time available to execute and finish the dissertation research study.
Through your research, your aim is to obtain information that helps address a problem so it can be resolved. Note that the researcher does not actually solve the problem themselves by conducting research but provides new knowledge that can be used toward a resolution. Typically, the problem is solved (or partially solved) by practitioners in the field, using input from researchers.
Given the above, the problem statement should do three things:
- Specify and describe the problem (with appropriate citations)
- Explain the consequences of NOT solving the problem
Explain the knowledge needed to solve the problem (i.e., what is currently unknown about the problem and its resolution – also referred to as a gap )
What is a problem?
The world is full of problems! Not all problems make good dissertation research problems, however, because they are either too big, complex, or risky for doctorate candidates to solve. A proper research problem can be defined as a specific, evidence-based, real-life issue faced by certain people or organizations that have significant negative implications to the involved parties.
Example of a proper, specific, evidence-based, real-life dissertation research problem:
“Only 6% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are women” (Center for Leadership Studies, 2019).
Specific refers to the scope of the problem, which should be sufficiently manageable and focused to address with dissertation research. For example, the problem “terrorism kills thousands of people each year” is probably not specific enough in terms of who gets killed by which terrorists, to work for a doctorate candidate; or “Social media use among call-center employees may be problematic because it could reduce productivity,” which contains speculations about the magnitude of the problem and the possible negative effects.
Evidence-based here means that the problem is well-documented by recent research findings and/or statistics from credible sources. Anecdotal evidence does not qualify in this regard. Quantitative evidence is generally preferred over qualitative ditto when establishing a problem because quantitative evidence (from a credible source) usually reflects generalizable facts, whereas qualitative evidence in the form of research conclusions tend to only apply to the study sample and may not be generalizable to a larger population. Example of a problem that isn’t evidence-based: “Based on the researcher’s experience, the problem is that people don’t accept female leaders;” which is an opinion-based statement based on personal (anecdotal) experience.
Real-life means that a problem exists regardless of whether research is conducted or not. This means that “lack of knowledge” or “lack of research” cannot be used as the problem for a dissertation study because it’s an academic issue or a gap; and not a real-life problem experienced by people or organizations. Example of a problem that doesn’t exist in real life: “There is not enough research on the reasons why people distrust minority healthcare workers.” This type of statement also reveals the assumption that people actually do mistrust minority healthcare workers; something that needs to be supported by actual, credible evidence to potentially work as an underlying research problem.
What are consequences?
Consequences are negative implications experienced by a group of people or organizations, as a result of the problem. The negative effects should be of a certain magnitude to warrant research. For example, if fewer than 1% of the stakeholders experience a negative consequence of a problem and that consequence only constitutes a minor inconvenience, research is probably not warranted. Negative consequences that can be measured weigh stronger than those that cannot be put on some kind of scale.
In the example above, a significant negative consequence is that women face much larger barriers than men when attempting to get promoted to executive jobs; or are 94% less likely than men to get to that level in Corporate America.
What is a gap?
To establish a complete basis for a dissertation research study, the problem has to be accompanied by a gap . A gap is missing knowledge or insights about a particular issue that contributes to the persistence of the problem. We use gaps to “situate” new research in the existing literature by adding to the knowledge base in the business research field, in a specific manner (determined by the purpose of the research). Identifying gaps requires you to review the literature in a thorough fashion, to establish a complete understanding of what is known and what isn’t known about a certain problem. In the example from above about the underrepresentation of female CEOs, a gap may be that male-dominated boards have not been studied extensively in terms of their CEO hiring decisions, which might then warrant a study of such boards, to uncover implicit biases and discriminatory practices against female candidates.
How to Write a Problem Statement
- Here is one way to construct a problem section (keep in mind you have a 250-300 word limit, but you can write first and edit later):
It is helpful to begin the problem statement with a sentence : “The problem to be addressed through this study is… ” Then, fill out the rest of the paragraph with elaboration of that specific problem, making sure to “document” it, as NU reviewers will look for research-based evidence that it is indeed a problem (emphasis also on timeliness of the problem, supported by citations within the last 5 years).
Next, write a paragraph explaining the consequences of NOT solving the problem. Who will be affected? How will they be affected? How important is it to fix the problem? Again, NU reviewers will want to see research-based citations and statistics that indicate the negative implications are significant.
In the final paragraph, you will explain what information (research) is needed in order to fix the problem. This paragraph shows that the problem is worthy of doctoral-level research. What isn’t known about the problem? Ie, what is the gap? Presumably, if your problem and purpose are aligned, your research will try to close or minimize this gap by investigating the problem. Have other researchers investigated the issue? What has their research left unanswered?
- Another way to tackle the Statement of the Problem:
The Statement of the Problem section is a very clear, concise identification of the problem. It must stay within the template guidelines of 250-300 words but more importantly, must contain four elements as outlined below. A dissertation worthy problem should be able to address all of the following points:
-->identification of the problem itself--what is "going wrong" (Ellis & Levy, 2008)
-->who is affected by the problem
-->the consequences that will result from a continuation of the problem
-->a brief discussion of 1) at least 3 authors’ research related to the problem; and 2) their stated suggestion/recommendation for further research related to the problem
Use the following to work on the Statement of the Problem by first outlining the section as follows:
1. One clear, concise statement that tells the reader what is not working, what is “going wrong”. Be specific and support it with current studies.
2. Tell who is affected by the problem identified in #1.
3. Briefly tell what will happen if the problem isn’t addressed.
4. Find at least 3 current studies and write a sentence or two for each study that
i. briefly discusses the author(s)’ work, what they studied, and
ii. state their recommendation for further research about the problem
- Finally, you can follow this simple 3-part outline when writing the statement of the problem section:
Your problem statement is a short (250-300 words), 3 paragraph section, in which you
- Explain context and state problem (“the problem is XYZ”), supported by statistics and/or recent research findings
- Explain the negative consequences of the problem to stakeholders, supported by statistics and/or recent research findings
- Explain the gap in the literature.
Example of a problem statement that follows the 3-part outline (295 words):
The problem to be addressed by this study is the decline of employee well-being for followers of novice mid-level managers and the corresponding rise in employee turnover faced by business leaders across the financial services industry (Oh et al., 2014). Low levels of employee well-being are toxic for morale and result in expensive turnover costs, dysfunctional work environments, anemic corporate cultures, and poor customer service (Compdata, 2018; Oh et al., 2014). According to Ufer (2017), the financial services industry suffers from one of the highest turnover rates among millennial-aged employees in all industries in the developed world, at 18.6% annually. Starkman (2015) reported that 50% of those surveyed in financial services were not satisfied with a single one of the four key workplace aspects: job, firm, pay or career path.
Low levels of employee well-being interrupt a financial services’ company’s ability to deliver outstanding customer service in a world increasingly dependent on that commodity (Wladawsky-Berger, 2018).Mid-level managers play an essential role in support of the success of many of top businesses today (Anicich & Hirsh, 2017).
The current body of literature does not adequately address the well-being issue in the financial services industry from the follower’s perspective (Uhl-Bien, Riggio, Lowe, & Carsten, 2014). Strategic direction flows top-down from senior executives and passes through mid-level leadership to individual contributors at more junior grades. The mid-level managers’ teams are tasked with the achievement of core tasks and the managers themselves are expected to maintain the workforce’s morale, motivation and welfare (Anicich & Hirsh, 2017). Unless industry leaders better understand the phenomenon of employee well-being from the follower perspective and its role in positioning employees to provide a premium client experience, they may be handicapped from preserving their most significant principal market differentiator: customer service (Wladawsky-Berger, 2018).
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The Research Problem & Statement
What they are & how to write them (with examples)
By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewed By: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | March 2023
If you’re new to academic research, you’re bound to encounter the concept of a “ research problem ” or “ problem statement ” fairly early in your learning journey. Having a good research problem is essential, as it provides a foundation for developing high-quality research, from relatively small research papers to a full-length PhD dissertations and theses.
In this post, we’ll unpack what a research problem is and how it’s related to a problem statement . We’ll also share some examples and provide a step-by-step process you can follow to identify and evaluate study-worthy research problems for your own project.
Overview: Research Problem 101
What is a research problem.
- What is a problem statement?
Where do research problems come from?
- How to find a suitable research problem
- Key takeaways
A research problem is, at the simplest level, the core issue that a study will try to solve or (at least) examine. In other words, it’s an explicit declaration about the problem that your dissertation, thesis or research paper will address. More technically, it identifies the research gap that the study will attempt to fill (more on that later).
Let’s look at an example to make the research problem a little more tangible.
To justify a hypothetical study, you might argue that there’s currently a lack of research regarding the challenges experienced by first-generation college students when writing their dissertations [ PROBLEM ] . As a result, these students struggle to successfully complete their dissertations, leading to higher-than-average dropout rates [ CONSEQUENCE ]. Therefore, your study will aim to address this lack of research – i.e., this research problem [ SOLUTION ].
A research problem can be theoretical in nature, focusing on an area of academic research that is lacking in some way. Alternatively, a research problem can be more applied in nature, focused on finding a practical solution to an established problem within an industry or an organisation. In other words, theoretical research problems are motivated by the desire to grow the overall body of knowledge , while applied research problems are motivated by the need to find practical solutions to current real-world problems (such as the one in the example above).
As you can probably see, the research problem acts as the driving force behind any study , as it directly shapes the research aims, objectives and research questions , as well as the research approach. Therefore, it’s really important to develop a very clearly articulated research problem before you even start your research proposal . A vague research problem will lead to unfocused, potentially conflicting research aims, objectives and research questions .
What is a research problem statement?
As the name suggests, a problem statement (within a research context, at least) is an explicit statement that clearly and concisely articulates the specific research problem your study will address. While your research problem can span over multiple paragraphs, your problem statement should be brief , ideally no longer than one paragraph . Importantly, it must clearly state what the problem is (whether theoretical or practical in nature) and how the study will address it.
Here’s an example of a problem statement:
Rural communities across Ghana lack access to clean water, leading to high rates of waterborne illnesses and infant mortality. Despite this, there is little research investigating the effectiveness of community-led water supply projects within the Ghanaian context. Therefore, this study aims to investigate the effectiveness of such projects in improving access to clean water and reducing rates of waterborne illnesses in these communities.
As you can see, this problem statement clearly and concisely identifies the issue that needs to be addressed (i.e., a lack of research regarding the effectiveness of community-led water supply projects) and the research question that the study aims to answer (i.e., are community-led water supply projects effective in reducing waterborne illnesses?), all within one short paragraph.
Need a helping hand?
Wherever there is a lack of well-established and agreed-upon academic literature , there is an opportunity for research problems to arise, since there is a paucity of (credible) knowledge. In other words, research problems are derived from research gaps . These gaps can arise from various sources, including the emergence of new frontiers or new contexts, as well as disagreements within the existing research.
Let’s look at each of these scenarios:
New frontiers – new technologies, discoveries or breakthroughs can open up entirely new frontiers where there is very little existing research, thereby creating fresh research gaps. For example, as generative AI technology became accessible to the general public in 2023, the full implications and knock-on effects of this were (or perhaps, still are) largely unknown and therefore present multiple avenues for researchers to explore.
New contexts – very often, existing research tends to be concentrated on specific contexts and geographies. Therefore, even within well-studied fields, there is often a lack of research within niche contexts. For example, just because a study finds certain results within a western context doesn’t mean that it would necessarily find the same within an eastern context. If there’s reason to believe that results may vary across these geographies, a potential research gap emerges.
Disagreements – within many areas of existing research, there are (quite naturally) conflicting views between researchers, where each side presents strong points that pull in opposing directions. In such cases, it’s still somewhat uncertain as to which viewpoint (if any) is more accurate. As a result, there is room for further research in an attempt to “settle” the debate.
Of course, many other potential scenarios can give rise to research gaps, and consequently, research problems, but these common ones are a useful starting point. If you’re interested in research gaps, you can learn more here .
How to find a research problem
Given that research problems flow from research gaps , finding a strong research problem for your research project means that you’ll need to first identify a clear research gap. Below, we’ll present a four-step process to help you find and evaluate potential research problems.
If you’ve read our other articles about finding a research topic , you’ll find the process below very familiar as the research problem is the foundation of any study . In other words, finding a research problem is much the same as finding a research topic.
Step 1 – Identify your area of interest
Naturally, the starting point is to first identify a general area of interest . Chances are you already have something in mind, but if not, have a look at past dissertations and theses within your institution to get some inspiration. These present a goldmine of information as they’ll not only give you ideas for your own research, but they’ll also help you see exactly what the norms and expectations are for these types of projects.
At this stage, you don’t need to get super specific. The objective is simply to identify a couple of potential research areas that interest you. For example, if you’re undertaking research as part of a business degree, you may be interested in social media marketing strategies for small businesses, leadership strategies for multinational companies, etc.
Depending on the type of project you’re undertaking, there may also be restrictions or requirements regarding what topic areas you’re allowed to investigate, what type of methodology you can utilise, etc. So, be sure to first familiarise yourself with your institution’s specific requirements and keep these front of mind as you explore potential research ideas.
Step 2 – Review the literature and develop a shortlist
Once you’ve decided on an area that interests you, it’s time to sink your teeth into the literature . In other words, you’ll need to familiarise yourself with the existing research regarding your interest area. Google Scholar is a good starting point for this, as you can simply enter a few keywords and quickly get a feel for what’s out there. Keep an eye out for recent literature reviews and systematic review-type journal articles, as these will provide a good overview of the current state of research.
At this stage, you don’t need to read every journal article from start to finish . A good strategy is to pay attention to the abstract, intro and conclusion , as together these provide a snapshot of the key takeaways. As you work your way through the literature, keep an eye out for what’s missing – in other words, what questions does the current research not answer adequately (or at all)? Importantly, pay attention to the section titled “ further research is needed ”, typically found towards the very end of each journal article. This section will specifically outline potential research gaps that you can explore, based on the current state of knowledge (provided the article you’re looking at is recent).
Take the time to engage with the literature and develop a big-picture understanding of the current state of knowledge. Reviewing the literature takes time and is an iterative process , but it’s an essential part of the research process, so don’t cut corners at this stage.
As you work through the review process, take note of any potential research gaps that are of interest to you. From there, develop a shortlist of potential research gaps (and resultant research problems) – ideally 3 – 5 options that interest you.
Step 3 – Evaluate your potential options
Once you’ve developed your shortlist, you’ll need to evaluate your options to identify a winner. There are many potential evaluation criteria that you can use, but we’ll outline three common ones here: value, practicality and personal appeal.
Value – a good research problem needs to create value when successfully addressed. Ask yourself:
- Who will this study benefit (e.g., practitioners, researchers, academia)?
- How will it benefit them specifically?
- How much will it benefit them?
Practicality – a good research problem needs to be manageable in light of your resources. Ask yourself:
- What data will I need access to?
- What knowledge and skills will I need to undertake the analysis?
- What equipment or software will I need to process and/or analyse the data?
- How much time will I need?
- What costs might I incur?
Personal appeal – a research project is a commitment, so the research problem that you choose needs to be genuinely attractive and interesting to you. Ask yourself:
- How appealing is the prospect of solving this research problem (on a scale of 1 – 10)?
- Why, specifically, is it attractive (or unattractive) to me?
- Does the research align with my longer-term goals (e.g., career goals, educational path, etc)?
Depending on how many potential options you have, you may want to consider creating a spreadsheet where you numerically rate each of the options in terms of these criteria. Remember to also include any criteria specified by your institution . From there, tally up the numbers and pick a winner.
Step 4 – Craft your problem statement
Once you’ve selected your research problem, the final step is to craft a problem statement. Remember, your problem statement needs to be a concise outline of what the core issue is and how your study will address it. Aim to fit this within one paragraph – don’t waffle on. Have a look at the problem statement example we mentioned earlier if you need some inspiration.
We’ve covered a lot of ground. Let’s do a quick recap of the key takeaways:
- A research problem is an explanation of the issue that your study will try to solve. This explanation needs to highlight the problem , the consequence and the solution or response.
- A problem statement is a clear and concise summary of the research problem , typically contained within one paragraph.
- Research problems emerge from research gaps , which themselves can emerge from multiple potential sources, including new frontiers, new contexts or disagreements within the existing literature.
- To find a research problem, you need to first identify your area of interest , then review the literature and develop a shortlist, after which you’ll evaluate your options, select a winner and craft a problem statement .
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The Graduate Writing Guy :: Writing Tips for Grad School
Introductions and Problem Statements
I often work with students who struggle to write introductions to their academic papers. In graduate writing, introductions usually present a problem that the paper is going to address or a question that the paper is going to answer (for simplicity, call this problem or question section the “problem statement”). This page offers advice and suggestions for improving the introduction-and-problem-statement section of your paper.
This page is part of my series on the University of Chicago’s “Little Red Schoolhouse” (LRS) approach to writing (see below). More specifically, this page discusses how to write introductions and problem statements for academic papers. It is based mainly on the advice in the excellent text The Craft of Research (3rd ed.) by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams (Joseph Bizup and William T. Fitzgerald contributed to later editions).
The advice on this page complements both (1) the discussion of introductions in the “Constructing Research Papers” section of my Essentials of Graduate Writing page and (2) my Style and Clarity , and Arguments pages, which discuss other aspects of the LRS approach to writing.
The “Little Red Schoolhouse”
Joseph M. Williams was a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Chicago and was one of the founders of the university’s famous writing program, often referred to as “the Little Red Schoolhouse” (LRS) after the nickname of its iconic academic writing course. That program’s methods and insights regarding academic writing can be helpful for students and instructors at all levels (undergrad, graduate, and professional). This page summarizes some of the key ideas of the LRS approach to writing introductions and problem statements.
Introductions and Problem Statements: Key Ideas
As suggested above, I lump introductions (or “intros”) and problem statements together because, for most academic papers, your introduction should, among other things, explain a problem that your paper will help solve. The reason is that you want your paper to be interesting to readers. In Larry McEnerney’s words, you want your paper to offer “value” to the readers. Even more importantly, your paper needs to make it obvious to the reader exactly what kind of value it is offering.
Readers and Value
Remember what I call “McEnerney’s Mantra”: For any type of writing you undertake, you always want to ask yourself two questions: (1) Who’s going to read it? and (2) Why are they going to read it?
The answer to question 2 will show you how to offer value to your readers. For academic papers, readers are usually coming to your paper for information. They want your paper to help them learn something new or understand something they didn’t understand before. For research papers (e.g., theses, journal articles) in particular, the readers are expecting you to change their mind about something (or at least try to). That’s why we also have to think about the answer to question 1: Who’s the reader?
Keep in mind that your ideal reader is hypothetical or imaginary. In actual fact, the only person who will read most of the papers you write in grad school is your professor. But if you think about it, your professor won’t give you a good grade if you write the paper with him or her in mind. For example, suppose you’re studying education and you’re writing a paper on how to incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) into urban science classrooms. You might think, “I don’t need to explain CRP to my professor. She already knows what that is. Heck, she taught it to us.” But if you take that approach, your professor probably won’t be pleased. She’ll probably mark you down and write some comment like “explain this more” or “provide more context” in the margin. So, clearly your imaginary reader is not your professor. Who is it then?
For the academic papers you write in graduate school, your reader will usually be a hypothetical member of a particular academic community, but probably one who isn’t a specialist in the specific subtopic that you’re writing about. So, for example, maybe you’re writing a paper on some topic in Medieval literature. Your reader (or audience) then might be the broader academic community of English literature people (i.e., professors, grad students). It might even be narrower; perhaps your audience is English lit people who specialize in the Medieval period. But you probably don’t want to assume that they are experts in the particular subtopic that your paper is about. So, if your paper is on the different subtypes of masculine gender identity that are referenced in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale , you can safely assume that your readers are English lit people with a specialty (or at least some background in) Medieval literature. But you probably don’t want to assume that they are experts in Chaucer or that they are familiar with the plot of the Knight’s Tale (which you should probably briefly summarize).
Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re presenting a paper at a conference of experts in a very narrow subdiscipline, or writing an article for a highly specialized journal, then by all means assume that your readers are specialists. The point is: always make sure to identify your intended readers.
With that said, let’s return to our original question: How do we write our papers so that they offer value to the reader? How do we catch readers’ attention, spark readers’ interest, and convince readers that the paper will change their mind or add to their knowledge in some way? Here are some possible answers:
- Argue that the academic community (the community that your imaginary reader belongs to) is wrong about some aspect of the topic being discussed by the paper. An obvious example is Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” that argued that physicists had wrongly assumed that space and time coordinates could be treated as absolute and observer-independent, rather then being dependent on the standpoint of the observer. Obviously, this is a particularly ingenious example—your paper needn’t be this groundbreaking or earth-shattering or original. But, if you think carefully about your topic, you’ll likely find that there are areas of confusion or areas that could benefit from new thinking.
- Argue that the academic community needs to examine a word or concept in more detail, because we (i.e., the academic community) haven’t thought about it carefully enough or realized how complicated it is. For one example that Larry McEnerney likes to use , William H. Sewell argued in a 1996 paper that historians up to that point had never deeply analyzed the concept of a historical “event.” They’d discussed all sorts of events—battles, wars, blockades, coronations—but they’d never adequately theorized about what events, in general, are.
- Argue that the academic community is generally correct about the topic, but they haven’t adequately applied their analysis or theory to a specific subtopic or population. For example, “Researchers have studied the effectiveness of culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) in boosting achievement for urban science students, but few studies have looked at how to modify CRP to support urban science students with disabilities.”
Pat Thomson (Professor of Education, The University of Nottingham) also offers some similar examples along these lines (read her excellent blog post here or here ).
These examples represent just a partial list to spark your thinking. They certainly doesn’t exhaust all the ways to offer value to readers. But if your paper does one of the above, your readers are more likely to find it interesting and keep reading.
With these ideas about “value” in mind, let’s tackle the actual structure of the Introduction + Problem Statement.
The Structure of Introductions: Common Ground + Problem + Solution
As Booth, Colomb, & Williams state in The Craft of Research (3rd ed.), almost all academic papers do the following 3 things in their introduction:
- State a Common Ground (or context). I like to think of this as the “Research has shown…” part. It describes something that is known about the topic, or something that everyone (who is informed) could agree on.
- Disrupt the common ground to state a Problem : “However, few studies have examined…”
- Respond to the Problem by stating a proposed Solution or what you’re going to do about the problem. For example: Therefore, this paper will review the literature on [topic] to identify the most effective method for achieving [desired outcome].
( Side Note : Here, I’m calling #3 the “proposed solution,” but in the video later on, I follow Booth, Colomb, and Williams in calling it the “response”–either way, it’s the same thing)
Here’s a partly-fleshed-out example:
Common Ground (What everybody knows or what everybody would know if they reviewed the literature on this topic): Popular media like movies and TV reinforce negative images and stereotypes regarding Brown and Black Youth. [Explain/elaborate/provide evidence]: Research has shown that such stereotypes are prevalent in the media (Hernandez, 2011; Tanizaki, 2017). For example, one study by Johnson and Abdel Qader (2020) found that… More specifically, media narratives tend to reinforce deficit thinking and criminalization of Black and Brown youth.
Problem (the “However” or destabilizing moment): However, one area that has not been examined closely enough is how these media stereotypes manifest and operate in the classroom. [Explain/elaborate/provide evidence] : For example, studies of stereotypes in the classroom environment (e.g., Camarillo et al., 2018) have tended to focus on microaggressions and exclusion of people of color from the curriculum… But few studies have examined the influence of media-based stereotypes on what happens in the classroom.
Proposed solution (the “Therefore, this study will examine…” part): Therefore, this thesis will explore the experiences of students of color in a group of urban high school classrooms to determine the extent to which these experiences reveal the presence of harmful media-derived stereotypes. The goals of the study are to identify such stereotypes in the classroom and to propose effective methods for neutralizing them…
This example is not perfect, of course. Perfection is a myth anyway , and all examples should be approached with caution and critical thinking. But hopefully it offers a useful, if rough, template for constructing an introduction that offers value to the reader.
One element that is missing from the above example, but which is often helpful in introductions, is the Significance , which answers the question “Why should anyone care about this problem?” The significance is often (but not always) posed in terms of the consequences of NOT solving the problem. And problems can be practical or theoretical. For example, for a practical problem like melting ice caps as a result of climate change, there are obvious practical consequences of ignoring it, for example rising sea levels that will swallow up large areas of coastal cities. Ignoring those problems will likely be costly in terms of money and human life. For a theoretical problem, failing to solve it may have deep consequences for the legitimacy of the theory or for broader concerns that underlie the entire discipline. For example, the mathematician W. Hugh Woodin argues that whether we can resolve questions about the continuum hypothesis in set theory has deep-seated implications for the nature of mathematics itself. Failing to resolve such foundational questions may make it harder to answer key questions or harder to demonstrate the value of the discipline itself (which in turn might affect the ability to secure funding!).
Significance is also often talked about in terms of “stakeholders” or concerned parties. For example, suppose you’re writing an education paper on whether a new law will adequately meet the needs of English learner (EL) students. Explaining the significance of this topic might involve answering the following questions: Why should teachers care about this? (or: How does this problem affect teachers and their work?) Why should educational administrators care about this? Why should taxpayers and the general public care about this? Depending on the paper, you might even be expected to explain why the EL students themselves, or their families, should care about it. Of course, some of these types of significance might be obvious to the reader, and thus not worth saying. If you over-explain obvious things, you risk insulting the reader’s intelligence or boring the reader. If you under-explain complex (or non-obvious) things, you risk confusing the reader. Deciding whether something is obvious requires going back to our earlier question about who we expect to read the paper (the general public? educators? specialists in language acquisition?). Determining the intended reader will help you decide what to include in your discussion of significance.
For an example of an Intro/Problem Statement that includes a discussion of significance, take a look at the opening paragraph of William Sewall’s 1996 paper, which was mentioned earlier, on “Historical events as transformations of structures”:
Video (50 min)
Below you can watch a video in which I cover the main ideas discussed on this page.
And here you can download the PowerPoint slides from the video:
Finally, here’s a helpful Handout from the Temple University Writing Center :
Coming Up with Questions and Problems
But now you might be thinking: “Ok, common ground-problem-solution is a great structure if I already know what my research problem is. But what if I can’t come up with a problem?” As touched on above, students often have a hard time coming up with “researchable” problems and research questions. They often wonder (and ask me): How can I come up with interesting problems like the ones in the examples or the ones I see in research papers? Especially if you’ve only recently started studying a topic, identifying areas of ignorance, confusion, poor definitions, and so on can be really difficult.
To get started, here are some useful tips (quoted directly from The Craft of Research , 3 rd ed.):
“Your first task is to find a research problem that might be worth solving. Here are four steps to that end:
1. Find a topic specific enough to let you master a reasonable amount of information on it in the time you have: not, for example, the history of scientific writing , but essays in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (1675–1750) as precursors to the modern scientific article ; not doctors in seventeenth- century drama , but Molière’s mockery of doctors in three early plays .
2. Question that topic until you find questions that catch your interest. For example, How did early Royal Society authors demonstrate that their evidence was reliable ? Or, Why did Molière mock doctors ?
3. Determine the kind of evidence your readers will expect you to offer in support of your answer. Will they accept reports of facts from secondary sources, or will they expect you to consult primary sources…? Will they expect quantitative data, quotations from authorities, or firsthand observations?
4. Determine whether you can find those data . There’s no point starting research on a topic until you know you have a good chance of finding data on it.” (pp. 31-32).
In academic circles, this process of identifying the question/problem is often described in terms of finding a “gap.” The “Thesis Whisperer” Inger Mewburn (PhD, Director of Research Training at Australia National University) breaks down the things you need to think about to identify the gap:
“The general area is a particular conversation among academics in the field of study. The specific area is your focus on a particular part of the bigger conversation (a sub-set of the larger conversation). The Gap is what you notice needs to be said in the conversation that has not been said before or that needs addressing in more detail. The research question/hypothesis/aim asks something to address The Gap in the conversation. The thesis statement is your proposed answer to this question… To this we can add a Thesis Outline : a courtesy statement or statements to the reader of where your thesis is going and the shape and structure it is going to take. (You owe them this if they are going to plough through 80-100,000 words for you.)” Source: Mind the Gap .
All of these elements listed by Dr. Mewburn are helpful pieces to include in the final draft of your introduction (but you probably won’t be able to include all of them in your first “rough” draft, so don’t expect yourself to).
Of course, “gap talk” also has its limits. I recommend reading Pat Thomson’s insightful post, The Problem With Gap Talk (also linked above), which offers some constructive critique of the gap concept and provides some rough templates for research problems. I also recommend the section of my Literature Reviews page called “Developing a Research Question.”
Finally, keep in mind that this process of identifying researchable questions is not simple or linear. As Colomb, Booth, and Williams state in The Craft of Research:
You’ll discover, however, that you can’t march through those steps in the neat order we present them. You’ll think of a tentative answer to your research question before you have all the evidence you need to support it. And when you think you have an argument worth making, you may discover that you need more and maybe different evidence from new sources. You may even modify your topic. Doing research is not like strolling along an easy, well-marked path to a familiar destination; it’s more like zigzagging up and down a rocky hill through overgrown woods, sometimes in a fog, searching for something you won’t recognize until you see it. But no matter how indirect your path, you can make progress if at each step of the way you plan for predictable detours (and maybe even avoid some of them). Resolve to do lots of writing along the way. Much of it will be routine note-taking, but you should also write reflectively, to understand: make outlines; explain why you disagree with a source; draw diagrams to connect disparate facts; summarize sources, positions, and schools; record even random thoughts. Many researchers find it useful to keep a journal for hunches, new ideas, random thoughts, problems, and so on. You might not include much of this writing- to- discover- and- understand in your final draft. But when you write as you go, every day, you encourage your own best critical thinking, understand your sources better, and, when the time comes, draft more productively. (pp. 32-33)
Putting it all together
In this section, I walk through the process of coming up with an intro and problem statement from a student’s perspective.
As noted above, introductions and problem statements (in academic writing) are usually the same thing: the opening section of your paper. Two of the most common obstacles that students face regarding introductions and problem statements are:
(1) Figuring out what to say (by answering the question: What is the problem or question that I’m writing about?)
(2) Figuring out how to say it (by answering the question: I know what to say, but what’s the best order for me to say it in?)
Let’s tackle these in turn by looking at a particular example.
Figuring out what to say
Suppose I have to write a paper on an issue or problem in healthcare for a graduate class in nursing. The paper needs to identify a problem, offer a brief review of relevant literature, and provide recommendations for solving the problem. That’s what the professor’s prompt (or assignment description) tells me. But how do I turn this prompt into an actual paper? How do I identify the particular healthcare problem to write about?
Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset: You do not need to write your introduction/problem statement first. As academic writers, we often don’t really know exactly what we’re trying to say until we start saying it. In other words, we need to do some writing to think through what it is we’re trying to say. In fact, the more complex our topic is, the more we have to put words down on paper as a means of figuring out what we think about it (for more on this point and related ideas, see this page , this page , or this page ). Once we figure that out, it’s much easier to go back and write a well-formed introduction/problem statement.
So, one valuable piece of advice is to start anywhere. Think of some entry point you have on the topic—some aspect that interests you and that you have thoughts about—and just start writing out those thoughts. It doesn’t have to be good. In fact, your first efforts on any given paper will almost certainly be bad. That’s OK—embrace this fact. Write what Anne Lammott calls a “shitty first draft” just to get your thoughts rolling and creative juices flowing. Later on, you can edit what you’ve written into something better. But for now, you’re just trying to figure out what you think about the topic.
So, returning to the essay prompt: I have to write a paper on an issue or problem in healthcare. Maybe I’ve thought about what I’m interested in, and I’ve decided to focus on mental health challenges that nurses deal with. This is still too broad to be the actual topic of my paper, but it’s a start. I’m narrowing the larger topic and starting to zero in on a subtopic.
Now, suppose I’ve collected a bunch of research literature on mental health challenges that arise in nursing, but I don’t know which one to focus on. However, I read an interesting journal article about how a group of emergency room nurses received CBT training to help them cope with the stresses of their job. I found this article to be really compelling and I have a few things to say about it. So, I should start writing here. I don’t know what the ultimate focus of my paper will be, but at least I can get started writing on this topic. I can write things like:
One study of emergency room nurses found that…. (jot down or type the key finding of the study). The study involved a sample of N=25 nurses at… (mention the location and other key details) This study is significant because it shows the value of…. (note why this study is important)
Maybe in writing about this topic, I realize that I’m most interested in the coping strategies used by emergency room nurses. Good. Coping strategies used by emergency room nurses will be the focus of my paper:
Larger topic: Mental health issues in healthcare
My subtopic or focus: Coping strategies used by emergency room nurses to deal with job-related mental health issues like stress and anxiety.
Now, I’m getting somewhere. But I still only have a subtopic. I still don’t have a specific problem to tackle.
Here’s where I’ll adopt the advice of Booth, Colomb, and Williams (quoted above under “Coming Up With Questions and Problems”): I’ll ask myself questions about the topic until I find one that really interests me.
What is it that I really want to know? Well, maybe I’m a nursing student and I want to know exactly what coping strategies emergency room nurses use. Do they go to therapy? Do they use holistic or alternative medicine for self-care? Do they vent to other nurses?
Actually, maybe in asking the last question, I realize that that’s what I’m most interested in: I want to know whether emergency room nurses create informal support networks to help each other deal with the mental health challenges of their jobs. I’m interested in this because I’m a nursing student who works part-time in an elder care facility, and I meet with some of my fellow nurses for lunch once a week. We spend a lot of time sharing notes, venting, and offering support to each other, and I’m wondering if this kind of thing is common among emergency room nurses. Are there a lot of informal support networks among these nurses? Has anyone studied this? If so, are there recommendations for emergency room nurses trying to create such support networks? And how can employers (e.g., care facilities) support these efforts. If no one has researched this, they should.
I go back to the articles (literature) I’ve already found and search for some new ones. I find that there are studies on nurses going to therapy, and other studies on nurses using various self-care practices, but there’s very little on informal support networks among nurses. There is also very little research on emergency room nurses in particular. Excellent, I’ve found a problem (or two). Now I just have to put it all these ideas together into a rough draft, which brings us to the next section.
Figuring out how to say it
Let’s use the template discussed earlier on this page: Common ground + Problem (that destabilizes the common ground) + Solution (what I’m going to do about the problem).
Here’s what I put together:
[Common Ground] According to the American Nurses Association (2016), emergency room (ER) nurses suffer from employment related anxiety, depression, and stress at significantly higher rates than other medical professionals, and numerous studies have examined the coping strategies that ER nurses use to deal with these mental health challenges (Camarillo et al., 2011; Ekwonye, 2018; Tanizaki and Williams, 2020). For example, Samahang (2017) discusses the use of on-site therapy for ER nurses at a medical facility in Austin, Texas… The coping strategies that the literature reports are most commonly used by ER nurses are cognitive behavioral therapy (Aquino, 2018), mindfulness (Zamyatin, 2015), exercise (Johnson, 2004), and journaling (Iyayi, 2017).
[Problem] However, few studies have examined the role of informal support networks among ER nurses. For example, a study by Huston (2010) presented case studies of ER nurses who employed informal interpersonal support as a coping strategy for work-related stress, but the study did not describe in detail how the informal support took place. Jackson (2011) described an informal support network in detail, but the sample size was small (n=8), and the results may not be broadly applicable to other settings… A larger study (Weinberg, 2016) examined informal support networks among nurses in a Midwestern HMO network, but the study did not disambiguate ER nurses from other nursing professionals… Thus, more work is needed to explain how prevalent informal support networks are among ER nurses and what benefits they offer compared to the other coping strategies discussed in the literature on ER nurses.
[Solution] Therefore, this paper reviews the literature on the mental health challenges facing ER nurses and the coping strategies these nurses use. Next, the benefits of informal support networks among ER nurses are discussed, followed by recommendations for healthcare leaders to facilitate and foster such informal support networks.
Obviously, the examples on this page are not perfect. But hopefully they stimulate your thinking and improve your understanding of the essential elements of introductions and problem statements.
Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2008), The craft of research (3rd ed.). University Of Chicago Press.
Williams, J. M., & Colomb, G. G. (2003). The craft of argument (2nd. ed.). Pearson.
Cain Project Writing Modules
The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication has an excellent set of 3 modules based on the work of Williams, Colomb, Booth, and others. The third module focuses on many of the topics discussed on this page.
You can download module one in PowerPoint format here:
You can also download all 3 modules in PDF “book” form here :
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