Defining a research problem is one of the most important steps in any research. Without a research problem, there is no research to do. It can be said that a research problem steers the rest of the activities in a research work right from research objectives, hypotheses, literature review, conceptual/theoretical framework, research methodology, data collection, data analysis, presentation of findings, to the conclusion. At any given stage of the research process, you must always ask yourself “which problem(s) am I trying to solve?” If you do not have a ready answer to such a question, you have to go back to where you stated the problem. In research, it is also important to state the problem clearly. There should be no ambiguity as to what you want to achieve at the end of the research process. An ambiguous statement of the problem will not take you anywhere. It is like driving in a desert without a compass.
How to define a research problem
Coming up with a research problem is never a one-time activity and it is usually done at the early stages. It is rare to come up with a strong statement of a research problem firs time. Often, it begins with a rough idea. Then you continue refining it by adding or subtracting some words. Often, it is best practice to conduct a literature review on the topic one is interested in. For instance, if your area of interest is domestic violence, you may want to read a lot of previous research work carried about domestic violence. You may find researchers in the past have studied various aspects of domestic violence but there may be a gap. As an example, you may find that there is no research done about the relationship between domestic violence and income among couples or an association between domestic violence and weather. Besides literature reviews, it may be also important to study previous experiments. If you are a psychologist and studying intelligence, you may find out that there has been no experiment to test intelligence among various animals. You may want to design an experiment that measures intelligence of birds or a specific species of birds. Still, if you find there is such an experiment, you may proceed to use the same test to determine intelligence of the same bird species in different geographical areas to determine if their intelligence is consistent. Although previous experiments may have been successful, you may disagree with the tests used, methodology, results, or the way the data was analyzed. In such a case, you may have to rework the research process and test the hypothesis once more.