The Problem with Problem Statements: Part 1

Posted April 24, 2017

Problem statements seems like they should be the easiest thing in the world to knock out when constructing your dissertation. How hard can they be, right? I know there is a problem with X, because Y tells me there is a problem. Wrong. This is one of the biggest mistakes individuals make when putting together their problem, purpose, and research questions; the minute your problem changes, your purpose and questions change, too. So, what to do? Below are some helpful tips to ensure that your problem statement does not give you any problems.

The most important step to take is to ensure that your problem is actually a problem. Just because you think it is does not necessarily make it so. You need proof. Let’s say you believe that the main cause for homelessness is substance abuse because the homeless people in your city have been seen in high-crime drug areas. Is there anything out there to suggest otherwise? This is where critical support comes in, and this support needs to come from citations. Personal experience is anecdotal at best, and most college professors will not let this pass as evidence of a problem. However, if you can find established studies suggesting that more than anything else, substance abuse does contribute more to homelessness than other factors, then congratulations, you now have empirical evidence demonstrating this is a problem. Be sure to focus on studies instead of numbers printed by various organizations. Studies, by and large, are peer-reviewed and undergo a great deal of scrutiny in the acceptance process, ensuring that bias does not affect the findings. Organizational numbers, however, are not held to the same standard, and often change from source to source.

One of the best ways to establish a specific problem is to look where other researchers left off. If you dig through enough articles, you will often find researchers’ recommendations in the discussion section. This will give you a place to start and help you find out what others have done before you. This will help ensure that the problem has not already been addressed in a previous study. The last thing you want to do is solidify your problem, purpose, and research questions only to realize that some researchers in Estonia did the same study 13 years ago. All that does is put you back at square one, which is not a fun place to be, especially with collegiate deadlines.

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