Crafting a Statement of Problem in Doctoral Research


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This document is highly relevant for early learner candidates of doctoral research in different disciplines. The illustrative examples would serve highly instrumental for the potential PhD candidate to visualize a research idea of selective interests and shaping an argument before framing a statement of problem. Additionally, it will also serve useful in learning how to link up purpose of a research, statement of problem, research questions, objectives and working hypotheses.

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Crafting a Statement of Problem in Doctoral Research

  1. 1. Workshop/Seminar on “Proposal Writing for Doctoral Research” to Enhance the Cultural of Inquiry Madan Bhandari Memorial College Binayanagar, Kathmandu December 25, 2013 1
  2. 2. Day 1: Paper 1 1.Introduction to doctoral research 2.Writing statement of problem By C P Rijal, PhD in Leadership 2
  3. 3. A few questions may be ringing in our minds… Question 1: What is culture of inquiry? Question 2: How can doctoral research contribute to the promotion of culture of inquiry? Question 3: So, what comes first in our minds when we talk about conducting a doctoral research? Question 4: Then, how can we commence it? 3
  4. 4. First of all, what is research? December 24, 2013 4
  5. 5. Research Means Systematic and objective investigation of a  subject or a problem in order to discover  relevant information. December 24, 2013 5
  6. 6. Investigation on a subject refers to … Establishing a conceptual, or theoretical understanding about something to be promoted as part of disciplinary studies. For example, development of a theory in public health. December 24, 2013 6
  7. 7. Investigation on a problem refers to … Assessing, diagnosing, exploring, or evaluating various facets pertaining to a management problem. For example, what percentage of first time Bhatbhateni Superstore visitors revisit this place for shopping? Why Boeing Airliners sales could not match  with its huge company costs… Top  management was quite concerned… December 24, 2013 7
  8. 8. Discovery of information means… Establishing theoretical or conceptual  grounds for a disciplinary study, or  Investigating the problem solution or  decision alternative in a defined situation  or context. Frequent flying customer expectations on  flight experiences with Boeing Airliners… December 24, 2013 8
  9. 9. Key Types of Research Basically, there are only two types of research --  a.Fundamental Research and  b.Applied Research December 24, 2013 9
  10. 10. Fundamental Research Known as the basic or pure research; seeks to  expand the boundary of knowledge in the given  area, thus we also say academic research.  For example, development of research  methods, propagation of a new theory,  development of an academic discourse,  concept, model or theory. December 24, 2013 10
  11. 11. Applied Research  Known as a decisional research; and attempts to  use existing knowledge for resolving the current  problem. For example?  What are the customer needs, expectations, and  problems associated to our offerings?  How did the general public like the prevailing  governance system? December 24, 2013 11
  12. 12. repeat it again… ¤ A research may be considered as a systematic and objective investigation that involves systematic design, collection, preparation, interpretation and reporting of information needed to solve specific problems or promote a domain of learning for promoting knowledge. December 24, 2013 12
  13. 13. Let’s come to today’s business… December 24, 2013 13
  14. 14. 1. 2. 3. What is a doctoral research? Why is it needed? Generally how long does it require to complete it? 4. Can everybody get admission for it? What are general requirements? 5. How is the overall process of continuing research and award of degree? 6. How is it linked to the promotion December 24, 2013 14
  15. 15. Have you ever thought over these questions… 1.What is a doctoral research? 2.Why do we require to undergo a doctoral research? 3.How to design and proceed it? 4.What are the expected outcomes of a doctoral  research? 5.What does a doctoral research scholar receive out  of this process?  15
  16. 16.  Many scholars in their early stages may take it as a  means of scholastic decoration; but later they will  realize… it is NOT at all.  PhD research in my understanding, is an endeavor  for grooming expertise, acculturating inquiry-based  practices and making the action more ethically  sound as a mandatory provisions for specialized  practitioners.  It is a search of grounded reality-based quest  aimed at the promotion of critical analytical  thinking in knowledge building for learning and  decision-making.  It is a tool to build intuition backed up by evidence. 16
  17. 17. Getting Started with… Step 1: Embark an area of self interest. Step 2: Explore depth information environmental and structural outsets to identify a missing link. Step 3: Build an argument supporting the need of a systematic inquiry. Step 4: Establish a detailed definition of a problem or issue to be taken into consideration of an inquiry. 17
  18. 18. How to get there… 1. Consult with experts Seek, inquire, read, identify and analyze their their say on what type of research they recommend for, or how they share about information deficiency on your field of interest. 18
  19. 19. How to get there… 2. Explore the environmental developments Numerous macro environmental developments may be undergoing or likely to happen in the area of your interest; closely scan the environment, build scenarios; and find a research link for you to be there as a referred person in the days to come. 19
  20. 20. How to get there… 3. Identify the limitations of earlier studies Review a series of earlier conducted studies in the area of your interest and identify their limitations; a common limitation of similar studies may be a missing link to drive you forward. 20
  21. 21. How to get there… 4. Check out recommendations for further research Review a series of earlier conducted study based recommendations for further research and explore if there is an interesting research idea for you. 21
  22. 22. How to get there…  A mix of above stated activities will help you better analyze the gap for research.  Gap analyses serves as the key to formulation of statement of problem.  Statement of problem governs the overall research premise and procedures. 22
  23. 23.  A research problem also ‘issue’ or ‘question’ that indicates the need or desire to know something.  Problem solving has three steps -1. Obtaining relevant information about the problem and potential solutions – research component 2. Examine alternative approaches and chose among them – decision component 3. Determine how to implement the decision and take action – action component  These all three steps are interconnected. 23
  24. 24. Research and Decision Problem  Research problem and decision problem may be closely related, especially in subject-matter or problem-solving research.  Decision problems (subject-matter) and action problems usually go together; we make a decision then act on it. There stands the need of applied research.  Disciplinary research however, may not lead to a specific decision or action. Disciplinary problems are of interest within the discipline and are oriented to the generation of academic knowledge. 24
  25. 25. Research Problem Identification  This is the most critical and important part of all research projects. The problem is the focus of both basic and applied research. It serves as the reason or justification for research.  Problem identification and explanation affects the quality, usefulness, effectiveness, and efficiency of the research.  A written problem description is the only credible evidence to establish a clear understanding of the issue to be investigated.  Research problem builds on a reason why the research is being, or has to be, undertaken. 25
  26. 26. Researchable Problem vs. Problematic Situation  A researchable problem is a very much specific problem at which the objectives of the research are directed.  It can be understood by contrasting it with the general problem, also called a problematic situation.  Problematic situations are very large in scope and may have multiple dimensions. For example, world food (or hunger), low incomes in developing countries, high birth rates, low education levels, poor awareness on girls’ education, restrictive trade policies, unemployment, high stigma on HIV&AIDS, etc. are the broader 26 problematic situations across the world today.
  27. 27.  Normally, the problematic situations are not researchable within an individual research project.  But, specific components of these situations are researchable, when broken into distinct components.  The components must be -– confined in scope and complexity, and – supported by a set of research objectives that can be achieved with given resource constraints (time and money). Research from many individual projects can be combined to address problematic situations. 27
  28. 28. The Statement of Problem  Research problems are always linked to a more general set of problems, so it is useful to separate the problem statement into two parts: a. The general problem (or problematic situation), b. The specific problem (or the researchable problem).  Note that the specific problem is not necessarily “small”, but rather it must be precisely specified and capable of being addressed with available resources. 28
  29. 29.  The general problem statement provides the background or setting for the researchable problem.  Usually, it helps to introduce the problem with very general statements, then progressively narrow the focus to more specific, precise issues.  However, if the reader of the proposal is already knowledgeable on the subject, the broad general discussion can be reduced, meaning that the problem definition should be tailored for the expected audience. 29
  30. 30.  For example, consider a situation where a student pursuing higher education in a foreign country plans to conduct research about her home country. The student’s research committee may not know much about the her home country, so it is helpful to provide descriptions of the economic, social, political and institutional conditions of her home country.  The general problem statement sets the stage for the specific, researchable problem.  The specific problem narrows the perspective to a set of issues on which knowledge or information is needed.  It must be clarified, – what knowledge is needed – the reasons the knowledge is needed – by whom the knowledge is needed – the potential purposes it could serve. 30
  31. 31. Guidelines for Developing Effective Problem Statements 1.Transform the researchable problem making it sufficiently specific to be addressed with available resources (time, research expertise, data, tools, financial support) 2.The dimensions of the problem should be described in objective (neutral) rather than subjective terms. For example, China has used dumping of its electronic goods in the US market. Better: China has provided export duty and income tax subsidy on Chinese electronic products exported to the US markets. 3. The problem, in any case, must be described sufficiently so that other people can comprehend it. 4. The researcher’s perception on problem may be intuitive, but must be developed logically. 5. Problem explanation must provide the reason or justification 31 for the research and its objectives.
  32. 32. Use of Data  Data can affect one’s awareness of a problem and how he/she perceives it.  It is always beneficial to examine relevant data in the process of developing the statement of problem.  In this process, large amount of miscellaneous facts can be reduced to useful information, which may be again extensively reviewed in the next phase while performing review of relevant literature. 32
  33. 33. Objectives • Objectives specify what the research project proposes to accomplish (do, achieve, estimate, determine, measure, evaluate, etc.) • The objectives are usually best specified in general and specific ones. Often the shortest part of the proposal, but it is the centerpiece. 1) General objective states the main purpose of the study. It should derive directly from the research problem statement. One sentence is the best! 2) Specific objectives a set or list of actionable, subobjectives, each of which contributes to achieving the general objective. 33
  34. 34. General Objective For example The primary objective of the present study is to assess the overall level of management readiness to implement TQM process climate in Nepalese Class A banks. 34
  35. 35. Specific Objectives To achieve the primary objective, this study specifically aims to -1. explore general banking situation in the country, 2. assess the level of leadership behavior permissible for enactment of TQM process climate, 3. examine the level of employee competence to enact with TQM process climate, 4. measure the level of customer consciousness for TQM process climate, 5. identify the level of total participation required for TQM process climate, 6. evaluate the level of shared commitment for transformation, 7. analyze the operating system standards’ compatibility for TQM process climate, 8. observe the systems’ changes and their continuity for transformation, and transformation 9. Measure the level of customer focus required to enact TQM process climate. 35
  36. 36. Complexity levels of specific objectives in Onion Diagram 1. Assess 2. Explore 3. Evaluate 4. Examine 5. Compare 6. Estimate 7. Propagate December 24, 2013 36
  37. 37. Objectives OF Research Lev els Nature of objective Objective description 1. Assessment To observe the situation and infer results 2. Exploration To uncover the reality facing a problem 3. Evaluation To measure the level of existence 4. Examination To test the existence 5. Comparison 6. Estimation To compare and contrast between given variables To project probable level of happening 7. Propagation To declare a concept, theory, system or model December 24, 2013 37
  38. 38. Developing Problem and Objective Statements  There are no constant rules or procedures to developing problem and objective statements. It may depend on how much you know about the subject of the research.  If your knowledge of the subject is limited, you may start with a broad consideration of the subject – then narrow the focus by segmenting problem areas into logical components (issues, research questions, etc.) 38
  39. 39.  If you know more about the research area and already have good idea about the researchable problem, then you may need to develop the general dimensions or context of the problem (i.e., opposite from the previous example).  Once the problem has been defined and general objective is identified, the specific objectives are set by considering important components.  A logical and clearly written statement of problems and objectives is often the most difficult part of proposal writing, and hence it undergoes changes as it is passed on to more serious readers. 39
  40. 40. Select a Problem Worth Research  Please remember, if you pick up something not worth PhD research, your work is not worth doing well no matter how well you do it.  Simple curiosity may not be a good enough reason to do doctoral research, i.e. research for research sake.  The fact that something that has NOT been done before might tell you something.
  41. 41. According Mikijanis and Thomas (nd.)… 1. Do not use a problem in research as a trick for achieving self-enlightenment. 2. Do not look at a problem whose sole purpose is to compare two sets of data. 3. Finding a coefficient of correlation between two sets of data to show a relationship between those data sets is not acceptable as a problem for research 4. A problem that leads to a question that can be answered with “yes” or “no” is not suitable for formal, scholarly research. “Determining if stock options are beneficial for employee morale,” is not a problem (actually it is a proposed solution) and is not appropriate for research, since this statement leads to a binary conclusion (either it is beneficial or not).
  42. 42. So, what should be considered in a statement of problem? What is the overriding problem? Retention; inability to adapt to change; poor working conditions; inequities; lack of evaluation of a program; conflict in ethics, values, morals, etc. Where is the problem found? Manufacturing; education; health administration; government; society; corporate America… What needs to be done to solve the problem? Survey; interview; create a new model; determine what experts believe; evaluate; meta-analyze, conduct experiment; benchmark, etc.
  43. 43. A convincing statement of problem… • In about 200 words or less, in about 1 or 2 paragraphs, you need to convince the reader that this study MUST be done. • You need to dig it out communicating convincingly with evidence of seriousness that there exists a pressing problem that needs closer attention. You also need to convince the readers that this problem can be solved. • You, as a researcher, will solve some part of this serious problem in a unique and clever way, and frankly communicate your limitations which opposed to solve it fully. • You have explain what specific methodology will be used to solve the problem. • You must be sure that the reader will agree with you after reading that it is important that this study be done!
  44. 44. A convincing statement of problem…  The problem statement will also have to hint as to the nature of the study -- correlational; heuristic; Delphi; evaluative; historical; create a model; experiment, etc.  You will be judged on the degree to which you find the answer to the problem you pose and thus, achieve your purpose.  Many researchers face difficulty in formulating a concise problem statement. That is the purpose of this seminar.
  45. 45. Always it is better to ask yourself… 1. What is the overriding problem (in one sentence)? 2. What is the population and sample that are affected by this problem? 3. What type of study will this be? 4. Will this study be qualitative or quantitative? 5. What type of methodology will be used? 6. What type of data will be collected? 7. What possible outcomes are expected?
  46. 46. A few social gaps… 1. Gap -- between rich and poor... 2. Women and minority -- unequal access to opportunities and benefits. 3. Equality -- unequal access to employment, education and health care facilities. 4. Geographical isolation -- (rural, regional, remote)limited access to facilities. 5. Sexuality -- discrimination in marrying, adopting children, partner inheritance, etc. 6. Age -- unequal access to employment, entry bars.
  47. 47. According to Merriam (1988, as cited in Simon, nd.), there are three basic types of research problems [CAVe] 1. Conceptual problem • Two juxtaposed elements that are conceptually or theoretically inconsistent. • This is the way it should be – this is the way it is. Example: Short-term economic and political interests can limit the vision of a corporation and inhibit the achievement of long term improvement. Example: We would like the top undergrad students to be teachers but the entry salary is not commensurate with the salaries these students could earn.
  48. 48. Concept Problem  The first mission of Surkhet Bulbule Taal is to protect and preserve the public park for its natural beauty and delicate ecosystems. The second mission is to provide an outdoor recreational resource for the general public. Foot traffic, vehicle traffic, tents, fires, boats, and facilities for the public contribute to the degradation of the protected natural elements of the public park. Both missions are necessary but a balance based on science and public interests demands is sometimes hard to negotiate.  Thus, it is imperative to explore more systematically how this place can be protected, whereby without compromising the recreational interests of the general public, and at the same time, maintaining a sustainable protection of ecosystem.
  49. 49. 2. Action Problem It arises when a conflict offers no clear choice of alternative course of action. Undesirable outcome due to apparent lack of choices. Example: Appointing university high-rank officials on the basis of political consensus and recommendation would have brought short-term, easy go but the consequences are dangerous and have now started showing adverse results. Thus, it is quite important to explore more systematically and establish a universal benchmark for sustainable future of national higher education in Nepal.
  50. 50. 3. Value Problem A value problem arises when there is a conflict about what people consider ethical, moral, worthwhile, and/or desirable . For example, the employees who believe their dress is a matter of freedom of choice and companies requiring a dress code. Was it really a tactical decision to eliminate monarchy system without erecting a substitute to the symbolic meaning of national unity? Why did the people come up with street protest for not getting ‘Jatra Allowances’ in Nepal?
  51. 51. Depth exploration is required while framing your problem statement… 1. What is wrong with society, or one of its institutions? [National defense staff are quitting, overcrowding, inequity, inadequate productivity, population fleeing abroad, etc.] 2. What has failed in society? [Unfulfilled promises, underrepresentation] 3. What is missing in society? 4. What historical event is in need of re-examination? 5. What program is in need of study or evaluation? 6. What program needs to be developed? 7. What need is there to analyze a current theory based on new events?
  52. 52. More examples of Problem Statement Case 1 A more recent developmental research in Humla and Mugu districts of Nepal found that in the case of remote community catchments of these districts, 5 out 7 children under 5 years were affected by malnutrition, where 3 of each of those 5 were in severe status of malnutrition (Rijal, 2009). Thus, it is a daunting task for all actors of development to reach to the bottom of cause and address the situation as soon as possible, otherwise the communities will be unable to bear the consequence.
  53. 53. Case 2 Anxiety, frustration, pressure and stress cause many doctoral degree seeking learners to abandon doctoral programs. Brown and Rudenstine (1992, as cited in Simon, 2011) found that over 40% of those who begin the process never graduate. Long, Convey, and Chwalek (1985) pointed out that selecting and developing a dissertation topic is one of the of important yet difficult steps in completing a doctoral degree. This becomes even more difficult in a nontraditional, distance learning doctoral program where face to face meetings between mentors and mentees are infrequent. Thus, it has become a more complicated issue for open universities to address effectively how to promote doctoral dissertation research in a more uninterrupted manner. In order to offer appropriate assistance to distance doctoral students it is imperative that a rigorous study be conducted to determine how successful graduates of non-traditional doctoral programs selected their topics, and what type of support could be offered to those who are struggling.
  54. 54. Case 3 Emotional intelligence includes the ability to be aware and in control of one’s own emotions, to be empathic with others, to motivate oneself, and to be effective in intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships (Cooper, & Sawaf, 1997; Gardner 1993, & 1999; Goleman, 1995, & 1998; Mayer, & Salovey, 1997; Stein, & Book, 2000; & Weisinger 1998). When human communication is involved, emotional intelligence is involved (Rivera, 2000a, 2000b). However, no one has yet established the exact science so as to know the extent of effect of these varying variables on one’s emotional intelligence. Such a situation served as a missing link for the present researcher. This study simply aims to establish an interplay of different factor affecting in one’s emotional intelligence.
  55. 55. Case 4 Nepal has been severely lacking a consistency of purpose to promote quality in school education. For example, Koirala (1996) explored that the nation spent a huge amount on developing school infrastructure to leverage quality in the 1970s. But the studies in the 1980s revealed low outcomes and policy makers realized teacher education as another important dimension. Massive expenditure was shifted on it throughout the decade. Surprisingly, nothing improved till early 1990s, shares this scholar. Following this situation, a hefty amount was further invested on curricular development in the 1990s, again with no significant improvement. So, what went wrong? Koirala (1996) shared -- simply the lack of consistency of purpose. Such a situation inspired as a missing link for the present researcher – How the development of physical infrastructure, human resources and curriculum can be coordinated together to improve the quality of school education in the country like Nepal?
  56. 56. Case 5 Bullying has been one of the most critical issues facing our schools today. Beane (1999) found that one in seven children is subjected to bullying behavior and that it affects about five million elementary and junior high school students. Bullies who once cornered their victims on the playground are now tormenting them online (Blaire, 2003). E-mail messages and Websites have increasingly become vehicles to threaten, tease, and humiliate other students. It means the young learners are subjected to be victims of bullying at anytime, and anywhere. So, the question arises – How can we protect the young learners from being bullied?
  57. 57. Case 6 Alternative education programs offer an option for disaffected and disenfranchised students who would otherwise dropout or be pushed out of school. For the past 30 years, a growing number of alternative education programs across the United States have helped at-risk students achieve academic success (Duke, & Griesdorn, 1999; Freeman, 2000; & Meyers, 2001). There has been extensive inquiry into a variety of alternative education programs describing alternative education programs by approach --i.e., type I, transformative; type II, punitive; and, type III, therapeutic (Kellmayer, 1995; Lehr, & Lange, 2000, & 2003; & Raywid, 1994). There, however, has been little formal inquiry into the leadership and managerial practices that advance transitioning an alternative education program from a marginally effective type III to a more effective type I approach as presented by Raywid’s (1994) alternative school typology. To confirm, challenge, or extend this typology in a natural and unique setting, and provide a holistic understanding of this cultural system of action to leaders involved in alternative education programs and policy it is important that a case study be conducted.
  58. 58. Case 7 Leaders need a comprehensive understanding of economic theory and its application to help foster positive economic outcomes. Davis and Wessel (1998) observe that the leaders lacking depth understanding of economics see only the results and cannot critically analyze economic problems. And well-informed leaders make better decisions that can enhance resource allocation contributing to efficiency, productivity, and living standards. Case and Fair (1999) suggest economics be taught using real world events and situations as the textbooks are dull and abstract. Therefore, many educators have relied on supplemental materials, including interactive simulations. One of the more promising of the genre is Aplia. However, there is a lack of empirical evidence to determine how effective such applications are with respect to improving the students’ ability to solve economic problems and make sound decisions. A quantitative quasi-experimental study using control and experimental groups could help elucidate the efficacy of integrating technology into the economic curricula. Participants of this study will utilize Aplia software (experimental group) and a comparison will be made between the knowledge gained in using this software and that gained from traditional teaching methods (control group).
  59. 59. ROC is a universal trilogy of framing statement of problem 1. Researchable that the problem can be answered by collecting and analyzing data. 2. Original that can be a repetitive study with new population/passage of time, or a completely new journey. 3. Contributory that makes a difference for the profession and also for the society.
  60. 60. References Koirala, B. N. (1996). Schooling and Dalit of Nepal. unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Alberta, Canada. Mikijanis, M., & Thomas, D. (nd.). The research question outline. available at downloaded on December 21, 2013. Raywid, M. A. (1994). Alternative schools: the state of the art. Educational Leadership. 52(1), 26-31. Rijal, C. P. (2009). Final evaluation report of water sanitation and nutrition (WATSAN) projects in Humla and Mugu districts of Nepal. Kathmandu: Social Welfare Council. Simon, M. K. (2011). Mothering and mentoring doctoral students while sailing the high C’s. available at , 2013. Simon, M. K. (nd.). The key to your dissertation or research project. available at downloaded on December 21, 2013.
  61. 61. Thanks !