Problem and Purpose Statements

Dissertation Problem Statements

Problem Statement

Problem statements for prospectus writing and for chapter 1 should be two paragraphs long.  You are establishing two justifications in these paragraphs: (a) that your study is needed by identifying a social-educational problem and reporting the findings of three or more current research studies on that problem and (b) that three to five (3–5) experts agree this is a question or issue that is relevant to your field (EDPD 8910).

First Paragraph of a Problem Statement

1st Paragraph in Problem Statement

The first paragraph of a problem statement is a description of the problem funneled down to a gap in understanding related to the problem.

From Prospectus Document: In this paragraph provide a logical argument for the need to address an identified gap in the research literature that has current relevance to your discipline and area of practice. Keep in mind that a gap in the research is not, in and of itself, a reason to conduct research. Make sure to clarify the problem that led you to the gap (p. 3).

Imagine this paragraph as a funnel. You start by establishing the problem, building ideas logically, starting with a broad problem in your discipline and further narrowing it to your specific specialization and then even more narrow to a single problem statement.

This paragraph should be heavily cited. You will need to cite a minimum of three current research studies to frame and narrow the problem. Some of these sentences might be densely cited with evidence to provide a landscape view of how the problem has been studied in the literature. For help writing these types of sentences, see my blog post titled Tips for Strong Evidence Writing.   In one of our college of education colloquial sessions at residency, we use the analogy of a baseball stadium as a way to think about your dissertation topic. If the baseball field is the problem you plan to study, you’ve got to situate your reader to where in the stands you’re sitting. You’re saying, people sitting in section A approach the problem this way, people in section B approach it slightly different. Then you can narrow a bit and share how some in the section in which you’re sitting approach the problem. You’ll narrow to the point where you can transition to a statement, that may say, “Although some have studied it [THIS WAY], and [THAT WAY], what is still not understood is [THIS].” Then you’ve primed your reader for the last sentence in this paragraph which will explain the view of the problem/field from your specific seat in the stadium.

Write a Single Sentence Problem Statement at the end of the first paragraph in the problem statement section. From

Single Sentence Problem Statement

Although the dissertation prospectus guide doesn’t state you have to write a single sentence problem statement, its best if you try. You don’t want your committee to have to search for the exact problem on which you’re basing your study.

This problem statement will likely go through many drafts. It is an important statement that will appear many times over and over again within chapters 1-5 of your dissertation. Work hard to get the wording spot on here, because alignment depends on it. You will use this sentence WORD FOR WORD throughout the dissertation writing.

The problem statement should include the following:

  • Narrowed population
  • Connection to your specialization
  • Phenomenon you will study

Here are some sample templates you can use and modify for this purpose.

The problem related to this proposed study is the lack of understanding of [phenomenon].

The problem related to this study is the lack of research related to [element of phenomenon] and [another element of phenomenon].

The problem on which this study is based concerns [population] and [phenomenon].

Place this single sentence last in the first paragraph of the problem statement section.

You will use this statement to align the purpose, research questions, and methodology.  The issues you discuss in the problem statements will determine the elements you explore in your literature review of chapter 2 as the Writing Center discusses in this blog post titled Align Problems.

Second Paragraph of Problem Statement is to Justify

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The earlier you learn to align your topic sentences with what checklists and guide sheets say is required, the better off you’ll be. In this case, since the dissertation prospectus guide sheet asks you “to provide justification that the problem is meaningful to the discipline or professional field” (p. 3). Use those exact words in your topic sentence.

Remember, your readers just read your problem statement, and now you’re leading the discussion to WHY that problem matters. Here’s topic sentence template you can modify as you see fit.

Current research indicates that this problem is both relevant and meaningful to the field of [specialization].  

The rest of the paragraph could address any variety of answers to the following questions.  Use cited evidence in these answers.

  • Who cares? Why is the gap worthy of being studied?
  • Hasn’t this already been studied?
  • How will looking at the problem in this new way make any difference?
  • How will this help the profession?
  • How will this further knowledge in the discipline?

Before writing this second paragraph of the Problem Statement, review what you’ll be asked to write in the Significance section. They sound similar but are not the same.  In the Significance section you’ll explain how your study will be an original contribution, how it will support professional practice and how findings  may lead to positive social change. So that’s NOT the purpose of this section.

Keep the Problem Statement focused on WHY the gap is important to be studied.

Purpose Statement

The Purpose Statement should be accomplished in one concise paragraph.  The topic sentence of this paragraph is a ONE sentence purpose statement. It should have many of the same words and ideas as the single sentence problem statement. They must align.

Dissertation Purpose Statements from

Here’s a topic sentence template you can edit for your own purpose statements.

The purpose of this [research design] study is to [explore/describe/compare/explore/develop] the [phenomenon].

In place of the [research design] you need to share if the study is quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods. This purpose statement will likely go through many drafts. It is an important statement that will appear many times over and over again within chapters 1-5 of your dissertation. Craft this sentence careful to get the wording perfect because alignment depends on it. You will use this sentence WORD FOR WORD throughout the dissertation writing. Every time you mention the “purpose of the study” use the SAME wording, don’t vary wording, state it the same way at every mention.

From Proposal Guide Sheet: Present a concise, one-paragraph statement on the overall purpose or intention of the study, which serves as the connection between the problem being addressed and the focus of the study. • In quantitative studies, state what needs be studied by describing two or more factors(variables) and a conjectured relationship among them related to the identified gap or problem. • In qualitative studies, describe the need for increased understanding about the issue to be studied, based on the identified gap or problem. • In mixed-methods studies, with both quantitative and qualitative aspects, clarify how   the two approaches will be used together to inform the study. For other approaches, clarify why an alternative approach is needed and useful for this project (p. 3).

Alignment is key. For more about the importance of this, see this post titled Align, Align, Align. Once you and your dissertation chair agree on the problem and purpose statements, you’ll be ready to get the methodologist on board and further develop the other areas of your prospectus. With my own mentees, I place agreed upon problem and purpose statements on a digital sticky note that I pull up every time I review their work. Alignment although it seems easy, its all to easy to get off track!


4 thoughts on “Problem and Purpose Statements

  1. Denzil Barnett says:

    Thank you Dr. Harland. These reminders and guidance regarding the problem & purpose statements are not only timely, but also quite helpful as I move from the prospectus to the proposal in the dissertation process.

    Thanks again!


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