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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.

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:

  1. The problem must be challenging and original, but also potentially achievable by your team.
  2. 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 donel 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.

Final thoughts

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.

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