Defining the problem

When you have to write a thesis or dissertation, it can be difficult to know where to start, but you can follow some clear steps to define the heart of your research: define the problem.

The research process often begins with a very broad idea of a topic you would like to learn more about. You perform preliminary research to identify a problem. After refining your research questions, you can lay the groundwork for your research design, leading to a proposal that outlines your ideas and plans.

define the problem

Step 1: choose your subject

First you need to come up with some ideas. Your thesis or dissertation topic can start very broad. Think about the general area or area you are interested in – it's often a good idea to pick a topic that you already know a bit about.

Do some reading to start narrowing down your topic. Find the best journals in your field and browse some recent issues. If an article interests you, consult the reference list to find other relevant sources.

As you read, take notes and try to identify issues, questions, debates, contradictions and gaps. Your goal is to move from a broad area of interest to a specific niche.

Be sure to consider the practicalities: the requirements of your program, the time you have to do the research, and the difficulty of accessing sources and data on the topic. Before moving on to the next step, it is a good idea to discuss it with your thesis supervisor or scientific manager.

Here's the procedure to follow :

  1. Define a broad field of research: online marketing, cryptocurrency, etc.
  2. Start a literature review (concept map, concept table) to define subject categories/niches
  3. Consider the type of research, the type of approach you will take to your topic. For example:
    1. Collection of original data
    2. Data analysis existing
    3. Results interpretation
    4. Compare approaches/methods
  4. Determine relevance:
    1. Academic relevance means that the research can fill a knowledge gap or contribute to scientific debate in your field.
    2. Social relevance means that research can advance our understanding of society and inform social change.
    3. Practical relevance means that research can be applied to solve real-world problems or improve real-world processes.
  5. Get your topic approved by your peers.

Step 2: define the field of action

There are many ways to carry out research work, here is a sample.

Applied technological research: often in corporate R&D or on a monitoring principle.

Scientific Research applied: based on the knowledge or results obtained through theoretical research, it is common for research projects to first establish the theoretical framework both to define the area of study and to identify possible theories that could be tested or applied to solve the specific problem posed in the project.

Exploratory research: used for preliminary investigation of a subject that is not yet well understood or sufficiently studied. It is used to establish a frame of reference and a hypothesis from which an in-depth study can be developed that will generate convincing results.

Descriptive research: the principle is to model and simulate a mathematical model, logic in order to better understand its effects.

Explanatory research: responsible for establishing cause and effect relationships that allow generalizations to be extended to similar realities. It is closely related to descriptive research, although it provides additional information about the observed object and its interactions with the environment.

In addition to the field of action, the type of data used in the context of the problem can change the way of solving the latter.

Qualitative research: to collect, compare and interpret information. In order to use statistical methods to validate their results, the collected observations must be evaluated numerically. Qualitative research, however, tends to be subjective, as not all data can be fully controlled. Therefore, this type of research design is better suited to extracting the meaning of an event or phenomenon (the “why”) than its cause (the “how”).

Quantitative research: deepens a phenomenon by collecting quantitative data and using tools math, statistics and computer aided to measure them. This allows you to project conclusions general over time.

After having defined its action plan and its data, it is necessary to define the scientific method (a course is dedicated to this).

Deductive inquiry: reality is explained by general laws which lead to certain conclusions; conclusions are expected to be part of the premise of the research problem and to be considered correct if the premise is valid and the inductive method is applied correctly.

Inductive research: knowledge is generated from an observation to lead to a generalization. It relies on the collection of specific data to develop new theories.

Hypothetico-deductive inquiry: it is based on observing reality to make a hypothesis, then using deduction to arrive at a conclusion, and finally verifying or rejecting it through experience.

Step 3: identify the problem

So you've picked a topic and found a niche – but what exactly is your research going to be about, and why is it important? To give direction and purpose to your project, you need to define a research problem.

The problem may be a practical issue – for example, a process or practice that is not working well, an area of concern in the performance of an organization, or a difficulty faced by a specific group of people in society.

Alternatively, you can choose to study a theoretical problem – for example, an under-explored phenomenon or relationship, a contradiction between different models or theories, or an unresolved debate among researchers.

To put the problem in context and define your goals, you can write a problem statement. This describes who the problem affects, why the research is needed, and how your research project will help solve it.

Step 4: put on paper

Contextualize the problem
The problem statement should frame your research problem in its particular context and provide an overview of what is already known about it.

Practical research issues
For practical research, focus on the concrete details of the situation:
Where and when does the problem occur?
Who does the problem affect?
What attempts have been made to solve the problem?

Theoretical research issues
For theoretical research, consider the scientific background, social, geographical and/or historical:
What do we already know about the problem?
Is the problem limited to a certain period or to a geographical area?
How has the problem been defined and discussed in the scientific literature?

Set your goals and objectives
Finally, the problem statement should frame how you intend to solve the problem. Your goal should not be to find a conclusive solution, but to investigate the reasons behind the problem and come up with more effective approaches to solving or understanding it.

The goal is the overall purpose of your research. It is usually written in the infinitive form:
The aim of this study is to determine…
This project aims to explore…
I aim to investigate...

Objectives are the concrete steps you will take to achieve the goal:
Qualitative methods will be used to identify…
I will use surveys to collect...
Using statistical analysis, the research will measure…

Step 5: Determine the boundaries of the problem

Boundaries refer to the boundaries of the research study, based on the researcher's decision of what to include and what to exclude. They refine your study to make it more manageable and more relevant to what you are trying to prove.

Limitations relate to the validity and reliability of the study. These are characteristics of the design or the methodology of research that are outside of your control but which influence the results of your research. As such, they determine the internal and external validity of your study and are considered potential weaknesses.

In other words, limits are what the researcher cannot do (elements beyond his control) and delimitations are what the researcher will not do (elements outside the limits he has set). Both are important because they help put research findings into context, and while they explain the limitations of the study, they increase the credibility and validity of a research project.

Step 6: the challenges to be resolved

Then, based on the problem statement, you should write one or more research questions. These target exactly what you want to know. They may focus on describing, comparing, evaluating, or explaining the research problem.

A solid research question should be specific enough that you can answer it thoroughly using appropriate qualitative or quantitative research methods. It must also be complex enough to require extensive investigation, analysis and argumentation. Questions that can be answered with “yes/no” or with readily available facts are not complex enough for a thesis or dissertation.

The process of developing your research question follows several steps:

  • Choose a broad topic
  • Do pre-reading to educate yourself on current debates and issues
  • Narrow down a specific niche you want to focus on
  • Identify a practical or theoretical research problem that you will address

When you have a clearly defined problem, you must formulate one or more questions. Think about exactly what you want to know and how it will help solve the problem.

Both qualitative and quantitative research require research questions. The type of question you use depends on what you want to know and the type of research you want to do. This will shape your research design.

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