‘I Need Answers!’ …
The Quest of the Research Problem
What problem do you wish to solve? What questions do you hope to answer? What pertinent knowledge do you want to uncover? What do you aspire to prove?
These are among the questions you will need to answer before you can write a “problem statement” for a proposal or research paper … and certainly before you can begin writing the paper itself.
When most graduate students begin their journey, they have only a general idea in mind for their topic, e.g., “women’s poverty in Senegal.” The far more difficult task is to specifically define what they wish to discover about “women’s poverty in Senegal.” The purpose of a research paper or thesis is to answer a research question (or questions). What about this topic does the researcher find particularly engaging? And even more importantly, what question about that topic can be posed that has not already been definitively asked and answered? After all, you can’t “solve” a problem that has already been explained!
A good start to pinpointing this important question – which we define as the “problem statement” – is to read all the literature you can find on your potential topic. This “literature review” will give you a comprehensive understanding of what is already known about the topic, what problems have already been explored, and what solutions have previously been offered.
Keep in mind that your own work can build upon research that has already been completed in your field. Research is a cumulative process; few experts ever write or invent something from scratch. Our thoughts and ideas come from what others have conceptualized (ideas), done (methods) and written (results). Your task is to build upon this tradition by connecting your own research to what has already been studied and documented.
For example, do you feel that some of the previous documentation was insufficient to adequately solve the questions/research problems that were posed? Or are there gaps in the current literature that have left a relevant problem in this area unaddressed?
Once you have pinpointed an important question that you feel needs an answer, you can begin attacking your dissertation with zeal. The whole point of your document is to definitively answer your research question, and explain why both the question and answer are relevant and interesting to the scientific community.
To help you better understand the process of fine-tuning your research problem, I offer the following example. I received an email from a newsletter subscriber a few years ago asking for help with her proposal. She wrote, “I am struggling to write my prospectus on the impact of curriculum on developing critical consciousness in adult students. My institution demands a quantitative approach, so I’d do a mixed methodology.”
Of course, I needed more information in order to help. And, indeed, the best help I could provide was to advise the student that she needed more information, as well! More often than not, this type of struggle can be resolved with a comprehensive literature review. As such, I advised the student to find out everything she could about the following:
• Have there already been any studies completed on “the impact of curriculum” on any topic in general?
• Have there been any studies on “the impact of curriculum” on developing critical consciousness in students? What about in adult college students, specifically?
• If so, what do we (experts) already know about this specific topic?
• After reading all of the literature available on this topic, are there any questions you feel that have not been adequately explored?
• When you study previous findings, do you feel that further research sources could help to complement or further our understanding of this particular topic?
By comprehensively addressing all of these broad questions first, the student was able to successfully “drill down” to a very specific research question that she felt was important to answer.
So what burning question will your document answer? The world is waiting to find out!!!
Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.
the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter,
Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a PhD. Her motto
is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done
Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of the
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