What is a Problem Statement and its role in MS-PhD Research

I am coming across research proposals and dissertations where there is a section heading called “Problem Statement” under which you find several paragraphs containing everything except the “Problem Statement”! The problem statement seems to be embedded somewhere in these several paragraphs but never crisply, precisely stated in a single sentence. Statement is ONE sentence. The problem statement is one sentence that describes why your research and your thesis exists. If you do not have a convincing problem statement describing the gap that requires to be filled, then there is no need for you to research! “Problem Statement” identifies the problem that you are solving, the gap that you are going to fill, the ontological “contribution” that you are going to make via the “original” research of your thesis. Unfortunately, an imprecise and vague description of the problem statement often creates a huge issue during the defense, because the examiners may not understand or buy into the problem as it was not precisely stated and not articulated convincingly.

What is a Problem Statement?

Students often have difficulty in writing the “problem statement” for the selected paper. Remember problem statement is a “single” statement. If you can not identify the problem a paper is trying to solve, you have not understood why the paper was written. Problem statement is the reason of existence for a research. Eventually for your MPhil/PhD research proposal you will be struggling to compose the problem statement of your proposed research.

Problem statement is an issue, lacking, problem, concern, shortcoming that is making it difficult or harder to achieve an objective of your selected area of interest.

  • Problem statement should state why some thing is not happening the way it should. It is some thing that results in lack of performance, lack of quality, lack of security, lack of speed, occupies excessive space, lack of accuracy, or lack of some other qualitative attribute related to the problem. 
  • Problem statement describes with a qualitative “adjective” the shortcoming or lack of some thing in the problem area. A problem statement should contain at least one word or a phrase that should have a negative connotation. A word similar to the following negative words should be included: “lack of”, “difficult”, “not”, “unavailable”, “slow”, “deficiency”, “excessive”, “costly”, “complicated”, “complexity”, “hard”, “incomplete”, “insufficient”, “unnecessary”, “inefficient”, “infeasible”, “unreliable”, “not integrated”, “not modular”, “incoherent”, “unrelated”, “insecure”, etc. 
  • Typically, problem statement is identifiable from a reading of the abstract. In some case you may have to also read the introduction and the conclusions. 
  • Difference between a good paper and the bad paper is in the difficulty of identifying the problem statement. 
  • Please note that a paper always tries to establish the contribution that the researcher has made in a particular area.
  • A well-written paper establishes in the first few paragraphs what is the issue that the paper is focusing on and what is the approach for its resolution. You need to identify the central thrust of the paper.
  • A good problem statement identifies a specific measurable variable or a relationship: “Takes more time, is slow, takes more space, requires more bandwidth, requires more computation etc”. Time, space, computation, bandwidth are quantities that can be measured and one can prove or disprove the claim. A good problem statement is not vague or general. It states some thing which is concrete. Some thing that can be measured, tested and proven. All good thesis statements and problem statements are clear, concise statement that can be proven or refuted through measurement or experimentation. 
  • A problem statement must take a stand and state the problem in a categorical fashion in the form of a “refutable” and “falsifiable” assertion. Falsifiability and refutability  of a statement is the demarcation line that differentiates science from pseudo science. All researchers must understand this demarcation line which gained currency through  Karl Popper
  • Problem statement explains the significance of your work. Most of your defense would involve convincing the examiners that the problem you have selected is real and concrete. If you are unable to establish the validity and importance of your problem statement, your entire thesis effort falls down. 
  • Problem Statement is not a question, it is not a wish, or need, or a want. 
  • The articulation of your thesis problem statement goes through an evolution as your research progresses. Your research reveals the concrete terms that best explain the problem you are solving. 

See also: Am I ready for MPhil/PhD Research: Self Checklist. Also read How to Select an MPhil/PhD Research Topic

How do you arrive at the Problem Statement

Problem statement is derived through the literature survey. Typically, a PhD dissertation’s literature survey requires 300+ quality papers to have been reviewed (See How to Read a Research Paper and Write Problem Statement and Thesis Statement). 
Literature survey needs to funnel down to your problem statement. Although the actual process of arriving at the problem statement is quite messy. However, when written down the literature survey looks like the funnel as given in the above figure. During the literature when you have identified the gap you need to articulate it using specific formal terminologies (T1, T2 … Tn) already defined in the literature.

The research questions that have led you to the problem statement also have been identified from the literature. These research questions (RQ1, RQ2, …, RQn) when abstracted at a higher level constitute your problem statement.

Coming up with a powerful “problem statement” that can convince the experts about its importance, need and significance ensures the success of the later part of your defense. However, your dissertation defense is in trouble if the problem statement fails to convince the examiners about its need or importance. 

Evolution of your Problem Statement

As you work on your research, your problem statement construction would evolve. It would go through several versions before it becomes solidified in your final draft. During each stage of research it may go through changes. The journey of discovery of the essence of the problem that you actually are going to be solving is the exciting part of research. Finally, it is the problem that you have solved! Which may appear to be very differently articulated from the version-zero. 
What appeared to you to be the problem at one stage may actually turn out to be only a symptom of the much deeper philosophical question that you are trying to solve. 

See Also:

What is PhD?

Why PhD is Difficult: 

Starting with your PhD

Reading Research and Writing your Research
Qualitative Learning from a PhD


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