The Problem Is Not the Purpose
This is the second of a two-part series (see the first article here). When working with new dissertation writers on developing their problem statements, I often ask them to complete an alignment exercise that has them write out their topic, the problem statement, and the purpose statement. New researchers may find this task difficult if they have not carefully considered what the societal, real-world problem is that needs to be addressed. In its place, I often see purpose statements of what they will do in their study based on the topic about which they are interested in writing.
Remember: the problem statement does not tell us what the study is going to do. It does not tell us what needs to be done. It is so tempting to jump to the purpose of the study or even the solution to fix the problem, but here you must stay focused: what is the problem you will address? Stay on that and don’t get ahead of yourself. Support it with literature…really dig in, and get very comfortable talking about and writing about the problem as it exists in the present.
Here’s an example of what I often see, based on my fictional paragraph on hierarchical employee structures:
The problem is that this study seeks to understand how employees in Fortune 500 companies perceive their opportunities for initiative in their work.
That sentence might seem glaringly obvious as (1) not a problem statement, and (2) vague because you’ve read up to this point, but I see this all the time from new writers. When you don’t know exactly what the problem is that you are addressing then it becomes really easy to slip in to telling the reader what you are going to study, instead. Remember: read the literature and let it guide you into understanding what the nature of the problem is within your topic.
The Problem Statement Section Is Short, Concise, and Robust
On average, the problem statement is two paragraphs. It is not long or filled with fluff. Think of it like a recipe: direct, concise, yet including all the ingredients. While I’ve seen problem statements as short as one paragraph or as long as four, the most common is a two-paragraph structure.
As a reminder: here is the first paragraph of our fictional problem statement section:
The problem is that the hierarchical employee structures within Fortune 500 companies diminish employee initiative. According to Johnson (2019), such structures inhibit decision-making, which leaves employees unsure if what they are doing is in line with departmental or corporate goals. In addition, Williams (2020) indicated that bloated management teams serve to protect management rather than employees who may be taking risks in proposing new methods, products, or ideas. Allen (2020) further explained that without changes by Fortune 500 companies in how they structure their employee hierarchy, corporate competitiveness will decrease as fewer new ideas and stale but safe products decrease consumer interest.
The first paragraph, like my fictional account above, is about the societal or “real-world” problem. The second paragraph is what I call the literature problem: i.e., there is a problem, and researchers have not adequately explored it (or examined it at all). While in the first paragraph your goal is to prove to us that the problem is real, current, and well-supported by evidence, your goal in the second paragraph is to convince us that the problem is worth studying. Not all problems are worth studying.
So how do you convince us that the problem is worth studying (and worth our time to continue reading about in your proposal)? The literature tells you it is. Thus, in this second paragraph you have to do two things:
- Tell us what is known, and
- Tell us what is not known but is worth knowing.
Here’s how this goes using my fictional problem statement:
While there is an abundance of research on the disadvantages of hierarchical corporate systems within Fortune 500 companies (Brown, 2017; Costas, 2017; Harris & Robinson, 2019; Washington et al., 2016; Wright & Eddington, 2021), there is a dearth of research on how employees navigate these systems when trying to present new ideas or share creative initiatives.
In one sentence, I’ve told you what is known and I have cited some of that “abundance of research” I alluded to, and I’ve told you what is not known (which I have not cited because there is a gap in the literature).
But we’re not quite done with paragraph 2. Now we need to prove that studying the problem is a worthwhile endeavor. Again, we turn to the literature:
Johnson (2019) conducted a quantitative study on the effect of hierarchical systems on management decision making, but recommended that future research explore the perceptions of employees in dealing with indecisive or contradictory management goals in taking initiative. Hernandez and Evans (2021) noted that a limitation of their research was a focus only on management bloat as it affected corporate competitiveness but did not specifically focus on the perceptions of non-management employees in the hierarchical structure. Further, Williams (2020) suggested that future research uncover the perceptions of employees who want to take risks but are reluctant to do so given the management focus on appeasing their managers and limiting all risk.
Thus, what we have done here is tell the reader what other researchers say must be covered. Why is this important and why can’t you – the dissertation researcher – just tell us this from your own, anecdotal evidence? After all, perhaps you’ve explored the topic you’ve chosen because you are immersed in it. If you’re the non-management employee working in a Fortune 500 Company you might see this every day and have strong feelings about the issue.
The reality is that you don’t yet have the authority yet to tell the reader what needs to be examined. You will get there, and in chapter 5 you get the chance to tell us what remains to be studied and should be studied based on the data you collected and analyzed. But in chapter 1 and this problem statement section, you are still exploring the issue, and you have to rely on researchers who have gone before you.
The Answers Are in the Literature
By now, you may be seeing a trend in what I’m saying: the answers to the questions you have about the problem you want to address are found in the literature. In truth, the answers to almost all of your questions about writing the dissertation are found in reading research studies – a lot of research studies.
You not only uncover the problem that needs to be examined in your study by reading the literature, but you can see how other authors have structured their problem statements and their problem statement sections. How do they go about supporting the existence of the problem they wish to study? How do they structure their sentences to be short, concise, and yet “full of all the ingredients” like a recipe is structured?
Another tip for acing your problem statement section when submitting it to your chair is to have read 5 or 10 problem statement sections in recent dissertations from the department or college at your university. Using Proquest’s Dissertation and Theses database enables you to look at published dissertations from your school, and possibly even your department or from committees in which your chair served. Doing this allows you to (1) see the structure that your university (and department) require, and (2) understand the quality of work that earned approval from the committee.
It’s the Underpinning of Your Entire Study
Overall, the goal of your problem statement section is to give us the ingredients of the problem and help us understand why it needs to be studied. The two-paragraph section should be short, well-supported, and devoid of fluff. The problem statement section sets up the rationale for your study, which leads directly into the purpose of your study that tells us what your study will do, how it will do it, and from whom you will collect the data.
If your problem statement goes beyond what I have outlined here, it likely means that you haven’t yet nailed down what you will study with the needed specificity. Remember: the answers you seek are in the literature. Other studies will help you see what remains to be explored. Keep reading, keep taking notes, and keep journaling. These practices will guide you in choosing the best problem statement for your study.