How To Write a Solid Problem Statement

A study's problem statement connects existing research to your data and analysis that yields new solutions. But how do you create a useful problem statement for your research? In this article, we'll look at the basics with some problem statement examples.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. The basic research process
  3. What is an example of a problem statement?
  4. How does writing problem statements help?
  5. Types of problem statements
  6. How do I write a problem statement?


A well-defined problem statement is one of the key elements of a rigorously designed research project. It is based on your literature review and informs your study design in a manner that facilitates the creation of a proposed solution through the data analysis.

This article looks at the concept of problem statements, their role in a research project, and how to write a problem statement for conducting effective research.

Problem statements are necessary for designing studies that offer viable solutions to adequately address research objectives.

The basic research process

While data collection and data analysis get most of the attention in any given primary research project, research relies a great deal on the amount of effort placed in the preparation of the research design. This preparation involves demonstrating a thorough understanding of the current research in order to assess the value and novelty of the new research being presented.

To ensure that the primary research and its underlying research questions are novel and interesting in their contributions to scientific knowledge, the overall study is supported by a robust and rigorous literature review. This review should provide a comprehensive survey of the conceptual and empirical knowledge relevant to the study being conducted.

What is the problem statement?

A problem statement bridges the literature review and the resulting study. It synthesizes the salient points and gaps in the existing research and makes an argument about the kind of research that should be conducted to generate new knowledge.

Why a problem statement is useful

An effective problem statement sets the tone for the rest of the study, in that it identifies what needs to be researched and how. This assertion is based on what existing research has already established, making it clear that new research would make a novel contribution to scholarly knowledge.

When to use a problem statement

A problem statement is a clear declaration of what research should be conducted and what theory should be developed. To that end, a problem statement can provide an explicit description for research audiences, which is useful for just about any research project. A problem statement explains why the larger research study is necessary or expands scientific understanding.

A useful problem statement allows for the clear planning of future stages of research. Photo by Parabol | The Agile Meeting Toolbox.

What is an example of a problem statement?

Here is an example of a problem statement that might be found in organizational research in financial services contexts.

The financial services industry suffers from issues arising from poor customer service, and the problem's financial costs continue to rise as the demand for financial services increases. Research and professional literature on the financial services industry have long posited that a business world increasingly dependent on automation and digitization is a root cause negatively affecting the financial service workforce's morale.

However, there is insufficient primary research to provide insights as to how to improve workplace conditions, a prerequisite for implementing solutions to provide better customer care. Further study is required in order to identify how financial service business leaders can create a productive workplace necessary for quality customer service outcomes.

The above problem statement looks at key workplace aspects influencing a financial services company's ability to identify potential solutions to deliver outstanding customer service. It refers to existing discussions in scholarly research and professional publications while asserting that such discussions have yet to illustrate any useful solutions to the problem that needs to be addressed.

The format of a problem statement

A study's own problem statement has three main components: a synthesis or summary of the existing knowledge relevant to the research inquiry, the gaps identified by that review and why those gaps are important, and the kind of research necessary to fill those gaps.

Let's examine the parts of another example problem statement that might belong in a larger study about education:

The contemporary literature has highlighted numerous cases where literacy teachers have elicited detailed and well-supported ideas from their students when asking more open-ended questions.

In the sentence above, the author has pointed to previous research (which should be described and correctly referenced in the literature review) about the effects of open-ended questions on high school students. In particular, students offer more details for ideas during interaction.

However, previous research has not examined whether the engaging classroom interactions from open-ended questions are related to other learning outcomes.

Here, a lack of empirical evidence illustrates a gap in the research that needs to be filled.

Moreover, any evidence presented thus far has been primarily focused on learning outcomes that can be measured in standarized tests. This leaves other important learning outcomes overlooked, such as students' motivation, comprehension, or creativity.

The problem statement goes further by pointing out a methodological gap in understanding the effects of classroom interaction and why this is important.

Further research that captures students' perceptions and interpretations of being asked open-ended questions by their teachers can meaningfully extend current theory and practice by shedding light on other important learning outcomes.

The last component highlights how the present research makes a novel and interesting contribution to existing literature, thus justifying the research to be presented.

How does writing problem statements help?

An effective problem statement sets up the rest of the research inquiry and ensures a rigorous research process. Let's look at each of the particular stages of research influenced by problem statements.

Research question

The problem statement identifies the gaps in knowledge that existing scholarship has yet to address. With these gaps in mind, the study you present will be novel enough to justify the attention paid by your research audience.

Study design

The literature gap can also highlight what types of research should be conducted to contribute to new knowledge. A problem statement that describes a reliance on interview research methods, for example, can justify the use of observations in a new study.

Theoretical framework

A problem statement can highlight a theoretical gap, as in a research field's reliance on one particular theory while overlooking another. In that case, the problem statement can justify a novel theoretical framework to look at data from a new angle.

Types of problem statements

As the previous section illustrated, there are different kinds of problem statements that can be used to establish the novelty of a study. Three common types of statements are detailed in this section.

Empirical problem statement

In many cases, researchers can argue that scientific theory might lack sufficient evidence. Theory that has been established in one context (e.g., high school classrooms), for example, may not have evidence to be considered applicable to another context (e.g., university classrooms), requiring further research to affirm or challenge that theory.

Theoretical problem statement

A theoretical framework is simply a way of looking at data to generate knowledge. When you change the theory, you change the way you analyze the research. As a result, a problem statement that illustrates a focus on one particular theory can justify the use of another theory, provided it generates meaningful knowledge about your research topic.

Methodological problem statement

Method triangulation is the concept of examining a phenomenon through multiple research methods to gain a sufficiently robust understanding of the knowledge regarding that phenomenon. If the literature prefers one method (e.g., assessments) you can establish research novelty by conducting a study that employs another method (e.g., interviews) and explaining how this contributes new understanding.

Problem-solving in research requires careful planning stemming from writing the problem statement. Photo by Aaron Burden.

How do I write a problem statement?

There is an intentional process to writing problem statements, even if it's just a few sentences. This section deals with what things belong and don't belong in a useful problem statement.

Questions to answer when writing a problem statement

As written above, make sure that your problem statement has three essential components:

  • What does your literature review say?
    While your background description of the research should be presented in thorough and transparent detail, you need to have a succinct summary of what the existing research says and how it informs your study design.

  • What is missing in the existing research and why is this important?
    A sufficiently comprehensive literature review should also allow you to describe what the current research has yet to establish or achieve. It is also important that you explain why this unexplored topic or question is important for theory or practice. This gap illustrates the problem and justifies the proposed solution in the present study that addresses this problem.

  • What study is required to contribute to scientific knowledge?
    Identifying the literature gap and explaining how your research address that gap in knowledge will help illustrate the novelty and contribution of the study you want to present.

Note that the overall study should address all of these questions in detail for transparency's sake. However, a succinct problem statement gives your research audience an easy place of reference to identify the salient points of the new research. Variations of your problem statement can be presented in your abstract, introduction, discussion, and conclusion sections.

What not to include in a problem statement

A problem statement should focus primarily on what existing knowledge has already established. Assertions that are not grounded in previously published studies are little more than speculation, and research inquiries that are built on unfounded assertions do not make for meaningful research. A problem statement rooted in a thoroughly-researched literature review mitigates this issue and ensures a robust link from scientific knowledge to new empirical analysis.

A useful problem statement should also focus on justifying the research that is to be presented. To that end, researchers should not assume that merely spotting a gap is sufficient. Rather, it is important to explain the theoretical or practical implications of addressing that gap to more convincingly justify the present research.