Many students have a difficult time crafting problem statements for their dissertations.  This is often because they use logic — but so much of the dissertation process is illogical that it’s a good idea to get accustomed to that from the start.  Although part of the problem is certainly a lack of existing research, your problem statement should never be based on a gap in the research.  A research gap is critical to rationalizing your proposed research, but it cannot provide the foundation for the problem.  Instead, the problem statement should be based on an existing, documented issue that has already been established by other researchers.  For example, you may study teachers’ abilities to meet the academic needs of English language learners, based on the documented problem of the achievement gap that plagues this population.  Or you may explore professional barriers that women face in certain industries, based on the documented problem of gender-based gaps in earnings and professional opportunities.

That leads me to the next problem, which is stating problems exist based on personal or professional experience.  For example, in your 20 years of experience in the field of IT, you have repeatedly noticed problems related to high turnover.  No doubt, turnover is definitely an issue that you can base your problem statement on; however, your personal experience with it is inadequate.  Dig into the existing body of research and find recent (published within the last 5 years) studies that substantiate the turnover issue in the IT industry.  Then you have a solid foundation for your problem statement.

Finally, your problem statement must be something that you can actually investigate and will lead to meaningful data (which provides the meat of your significance statement).  This one can be tricky, and your chair may not always catch these types of issues.  For example, I had a client come to me with a concept paper draft with a problem statement based on the lack of information on individuals’ work styles, based on gender and age.  The argument was that understanding which groups of individuals possess the work styles most akin to the particular industry under investigation would provide organizations with information they could use to make better hiring decisions.  However, the problem was that any data produced from that study and used by organizations to make hiring decisions would have the propensity to be sexist or ageist.  For example, if the study data revealed that younger women generally possessed work styles most aligned with the requirements of a position, the implication would be that organizations should hire more young women.  But making hiring decisions based on gender and age is against federal law.  See the conundrum? So always consider the type of data your problem statement and research questions will lead to, and what the implications are.

Just to add, always make sure that your research question(s) and problem statement align.  Your problem statement should make a case for the research questions, and the verbiage you use in the two should match (this also goes for the purpose and significance statements).  As always, if you’re having trouble with your problem statement, or any other aspect of your dissertation, I am happy to assist – just email me or fill out the contact form.

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