How to define the problem

When you need to write a thesis or dissertation, the first step is to define the problem.

The research process often begins with a very broad idea of a topic you would like to learn more about. You do preliminary research to identify a problem. After refining your questions research, you can lay the foundation for your research design, leading to a proposal that describes your ideas and plans.


Step 1: choose your subject

You need to come up with some ideas first. Your thesis or dissertation topic can start very broad. Think about the general area or area that interests you – it's often a good idea to choose a topic that you already know a little about.

Do a little reading to start narrowing down your topic. Research the top journals in your field and browse some recent issues. If you are interested in an article, consult the reference list to find other relevant sources.

As you read, take notes and try to identify problems, questions, debates, contradictions, and gaps. Your goal is to move from a broad area of interest to a specific niche.

Be sure to consider the practical aspects: the requirements of your program, the time you have to complete the research, and the difficulty of accessing sources and data on the topic. Before moving on to the next step, it is a good idea to discuss it with your thesis director or scientific manager.

Here are the steps to follow :

  1. Define a broad search field: online marketing, cryptocurrency, etc.
  2. Start a literature review (concept map, concept table) to define the categories/niches of the subject
  3. Consider the type of research, the type of approach you will take to your topic. For example:
    1. Collection of original data
    2. Analysis of existing data
    3. Interpretation of results
    4. Compare approaches/methods
  4. Determine relevance:
    1. Academic relevance means that the research can fill a knowledge gap or contribute to scientific debate in your field.
    2. Social relevance means that research can advance our understanding of society and inform social change.
    3. Practical relevance means that the research can be applied to solve real-world problems or improve real-world processes.
  5. Get your topic approved by your peers.

Step 2: define the scope of action

There are many ways to conduct research, here is a sample.

Applied technological research: often in corporate R&D or on a monitoring basis.

Applied scientific research: based on the knowledge or results obtained through theoretical research, it is common for research projects to first establish the theoretical framework both to define the area of study and to identify possible theories that could be tested or applied to solve the specific problem posed in the project.

Exploratory research: used for preliminary investigation of a subject that is not yet well understood or sufficiently studied. It serves to establish a reference framework and a hypothesis from which an in-depth study can be developed which will generate convincing results.

Descriptive research: the principle is to model and simulate a mathematical, logical model in order to better understand its effects.

Explanatory research: responsible for establishing cause and effect relationships that allow generalizations to be extended to similar realities. It is closely related to descriptive research, although it provides additional information about the observed object and its interactions with the environment.

In addition to the scope of action, the type of data used in the context of the problem can change the way it is resolved.

Qualitative research: to collect, compare and interpret information. In order to use statistical methods to validate their results, the observations collected must be evaluated numerically. Qualitative research, however, tends to be subjective, as not all data can be fully controlled. Therefore, this type of research design is better suited to extracting the meaning of an event or phenomenon (the “why”) than its cause (the “how”).

Quantitative research: delves deeper into a phenomenon by collecting quantitative data and using mathematical, statistical and computer-assisted tools to measure them. This allows general conclusions to be projected over time.

After having defined your action plan and data, you must define the scientific method (a course is dedicated to this).

Deductive investigation: reality is explained by general laws which lead to certain conclusions; conclusions are expected to be part of the premise of the research problem and to be considered correct if the premise is valid and the method inductive is applied correctly.

Inductive research: knowledge is generated from an observation to arrive at a generalization. It relies on the collection of specific data to develop new theories.

Hypothetico-deductive investigation: it is based on observing reality to make a hypothesis, then using deduction to obtain a conclusion and finally verify or reject it through experience.

Step 3: identify the problem

So you've chosen a topic and found a niche – but what exactly will your research be about, and why is it important? To give direction and purpose to your project, you need to define a research problem.

The problem may be a practical problem – for example, a process or practice that is not working well, an area of concern in an organization's performance, or a difficulty faced by a specific group of people in society.

Alternatively, you may choose to study a theoretical problem – for example, an under-researched phenomenon or relationship, a contradiction between different models or theories, or an unresolved debate between researchers.

To put the problem in context and define your goals, you can write a problem statement. This describes who the problem affects, why the research is needed, and how your research project will help solve it.

Step 4: put on paper

Contextualize the problem
The problem statement should frame your research problem in its particular context and provide an overview of what is already known about it.

Practical research problems
For practical research, focus on the concrete details of the situation:
Where and when does the problem occur?
Who does the problem affect?
What attempts have been made to resolve the problem?

Theoretical research problems
For theoretical research, consider the scientific, social, geographic and/or historical context:
What do we already know about the problem?
Is the problem limited to a certain time period or geographic area?
How has the problem been defined and debated in the scientific literature?

Set your goals and objectives
Finally, the problem statement should frame how you intend to solve the problem. Your goal should not be to find a conclusive solution, but to investigate the reasons for the problem and come up with more effective approaches to solve or understand it.

The aim is the general 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…
I aim to investigate…

Objectives are the concrete steps you will take to achieve the goal:
Qualitative methods will be used to identify…
I will use surveys to collect…
Using statistical analysis, the research will measure…

Step 5: determine the boundaries of the problem

Delimitations refer to the limits of the research study, based on the researcher's decision of what to include and what to exclude. They refine your study to make it more manageable and more relevant to what you are trying to prove.

Limitations concern the validity and reliability of the study. These are features of the design or methodology of research which are beyond your control but which influence the results of your research. As such, they determine the internal and external validity of your study and are considered potential weaknesses.

In other words, boundaries are what the researcher cannot do (elements outside of his or her control) and delimitations are what the researcher will not do (elements outside of the limits he or she has set). Both are important because they help put research findings in context, and while they explain the limitations of the study, they increase the credibility and validity of a research project.

Step 6: determine the challenges

Then, based on the problem statement, you need to write one or more research questions. These target exactly what you want to know. They may focus on describing, comparing, evaluating, or explaining the research problem.

A strong research question should be specific enough that you can answer it thoroughly using appropriate qualitative or quantitative research methods. It must also be complex enough to require in-depth investigation, analysis, and argument. Questions that can be answered with “yes/no” or with readily available facts are not complex enough for a thesis or dissertation.

The process of developing your research question follows several steps:

  • Choose a broad topic
  • Do some preliminary reading to learn about current debates and issues
  • Narrow down a specific niche you want to focus on
  • Identify a practical or theoretical research problem that you will address

When you have a clearly defined problem, you need to formulate one or more questions. Think about exactly what you want to know and how it will help solve the problem.

Both qualitative and quantitative research require research questions. The type of question you use depends on what you want to know and the type of research you want to do. This will shape your research design.