A problem statement describes a problem or issue that needs to be solved in your dissertation.
Before you write a problem statement, you should always define the problem that you will address in your dissertation.
See an example of a problem definition
You need it for two main reasons:
- The problem statement is the stepping-stone to your main research question. If you haven’t identified a problem, you cannot formulate the question you will explore.
- The problem statement gives you focus and makes you hone in on something very particular.
Once you have done some research and defined your research problem, you should have an idea of what specifically within the larger problem you want to address. The next step is then to transform this into a problem statement that clearly explains the problem you will help solve and demonstrates the relevance of your research.
The problem statement does not have to be limited to a single sentence. It may also be described in a short paragraph.
Example of a problem expressed in one sentence
The teachers at the Middletown school do not have the skills to recognize or properly guide gifted children in the classroom.
Example of a problem expressed in a brief paragraph
The employees of the Rabobank Netherlands are unmotivated following the announcement of a new round of layoffs. At the same time, their workload continues to be high. Illness-related absenteeism seems to be increasing, but the HR department does not currently have the tools to monitor, assess and prevent the problem.
What makes a problem statement good?
A good problem statement is based on a thoughtful problem definition and clearly indicates:
- Where the problem is occurring; and
- What the problem is.
The statement must also:
- Focus on one problem;
- Be written explicitly; and
- Be relevant
An objective is also necessary
In addition to identifying your problem, you also need to set an objective that will guide your research and justify why it needs to be undertaken.
Once you have written your problem statement, you are ready to create your main research question and related sub-questions.
Be careful: Although the problem statement and your main research question are closely linked, they are not the same thing.
|Problem statement||Main research question|
|The teachers at the Middletown school do not have the skills to recognize or properly guide gifted children in the classroom.||What practical techniques can teachers use to better identify and guide gifted children?|
Some universities may combine the concepts of a problem statement and main research question. Always take care that you are referring to the right item in your writing and when you communicate with your supervisor.
Learn more about main research questions
Guest blog by Dr Robert Lomas: Lecturer in Technological Management; member of the Operations and Information Management group and author of Mastering Your Business Dissertation (2011) Routledge, Oxford.
Every aspiring Master’s student, faced with a dissertation proposal form, worries about this question. The bad news is – there is no prefect question for every occasion – but the good news is there is always a perfect question for you. Your problem is to discover exactly what it is. Let me help you think about how you can do this.
1. Who cares about your dissertation?
There are three conflicting pressures you must resolve before you can hope to set the perfect question. They all arise from your choice of topic. So who cares what you choose to write about? You may think it’s all about you, but it’s not. You are about to become involved in a ménage à trois and it’s important to be properly prepared for the mental tension this evokes.
Who are the three players in the triangular relationship? They are you, your potential – or existing – employer, and your business school. All have strong views about the topic you should research. If you are to uncover your perfect question each much be fully satisfied by your choice. So let me give you a quick mental check list
- Is this topic interesting enough to maintain my interest and enthusiasm for the next six months and do I think I can write 15,000 words about?
- Is this topic important to my career plans? Will it raise my profile with my employer and help me to stand out as knowledgeable and competent in this field?
- Does this topic encompass sufficient academic content to demonstrate to my business school that I have attained a sufficient standard to be considered a Master of the business discipline it covers?
2. Will you stay enthused about your dissertation subject?
When you think about these three stakeholders you will find areas of conflict between any two of the partners – but you will also find areas where the interests of all three coincide. Chose a topic in this conflict-free zone and it will become the subject of your perfect question. But justify to yourself why it matters and how to satisfy everyone, most particularly you.
Your interest and enthusiasm is vital for a successful outcome. If you’re not interested in the topic, how can you hope to enthuse anybody else about it?
3. Can you explain the answer to your dissertation?
The quest for the perfect question has become a search within the bounds of your chosen topic. But the next three steps are vital
- Set yourself a question you can answer within the time and word limits of the dissertation. (for an MBA this is usually three months and 15,000 words)
- Work out what facts and theories you need to answer your question, and plan how you will bring them together. And finally
- Work out how to explain your answer to the reader of your dissertation. Remember, they don’t know who you are, what your question is about and need to be convinced it even matters.
4. Is your question really a question – or a statement?
Make sure you know the difference between a question and statement. Let me give you an example of how a question might develop.
“Successful businesses are limited by the manner in which operations are managed.”
This, of course, is a statement not a question. For the sake of clarity always remember that questions end in a question mark. Statements end in a full stop. Yet this sentence – in quotes above – was proposed as question for a dissertation by one of my students. With a little prompting it became
“Is the success of business limited by the manner in which their operations are managed?”
Now this question is either trivial, and can be answered yes or no, or a massive task demanding months of research. I put the question into the first person to help the student understand just how “big an ask” it could be. The question became
“How can I describe the ways in which the success of businesses is limited by the way their operations are managed?”
5. The perfect dissertation question for you
This question is biased. It asserts the key to success lies in how a business organizes its operations. If you know that why bother researching it? Otherwise it’s too wide in scope to fit into the time and word limit. Proving it will involve studying all successful businesses, tabulating the main features of their operations management over some period of time and seeking correlations between their success and any significant features of their operations management.
Limiting the task to a specific industry would help but even better would be to choose a particular firm, perhaps the one the student wishes to impress. When I pointed this out the student proposed a new question.
“How can I improve the operations management of Joe Bloggs Ltd in order to increase profitability?”
This is a question which can be answered. It satisfies the needs of the student, the employer and the business school. So it is the perfect question for this student.
What is the hardest part that you have found in creating your perfect dissertation question?