Defining Focus: Strategies for a Strong Dissertation Problem Statement

Defining Focus: Strategies for a Strong Dissertation Problem Statement

By Nicole Dhanraj, PhD- Doctoral Dissertation Coach

The problem statement is the cornerstone of your dissertation. However, you may encounter challenges when writing your dissertation problem statements, including struggles articulating a clear and specific research focus, difficulty narrowing down broad topics, and an insufficient understanding of existing literature.

Fear not! Here are three step-by-step guides to help you define your focus as you develop your problem statement. This should remove the jitters on how to get started and address your committee concerns on a problem statement that is not focused.

    1. Step 1: Identify the High-Level Area of Interest
      Begin by brainstorming a broad field within your discipline that piques your curiosity. Whether it's education, psychology, health, or international business, identifying this high-level area lays the groundwork for your problem statement.

    1. Step 2: Exploring Your Research Landscape
      What areas do you want to study in your selected field? What aspects ignite your curiosity? Reflect on your industry, considering the challenges or gaps highlighted in the existing literature. To guide your exploration, here are some examples across diverse fields:
      • Education: Student motivation, principals leadership styles, online learning effectiveness.
      • Psychology: Social media impact on adolescent self-esteem cross-cultural variations in emotional expression.
      • Health: Treatment adherence for chronic illness, utilization of technology to improve patient outcomes.
      • International Business: The influence of trust on business relationships in the manufacturer-foreign intermediary dyad, supply chain diversity, and the relationship to business outcomes.

  1. Step 3: Research and Refine the Problem
    Here's where the real digging begins. Immerse yourself in the existing literature related to your chosen area. Read academic journals, books, and relevant online resources. Consider specific subfields within your area of interest, exploring factors influencing your research focus. You can refine your broad problem using the following tactics.
    1. Sharpen your focus. What are the subtopics of student motivation in education? You might find research on motivation linked to factors like self-efficacy, teacher expectations, peer relationships, income levels, or parental support. You could then sharpen your focus on student motivation to explore parental support's influence on student motivation. So, while you discovered that there is general research on student motivation, you can now drill into a specific area, such as examining how parental involvement impacts motivation levels.
    2. Identifying knowledge gaps: As you delve deeper, you will start noticing inconsistencies, unanswered questions, or a lack of research in specific aspects of the field. Suppose you are exploring "treatment adherence in chronic illnesses." You might identify a knowledge gap regarding the impact of socioeconomic factors on treatment adherence. Existing research might lack a comprehensive understanding of how income levels influence patients' ability to adhere to long-term treatment plans.
    3. Inconsistencies in Findings: Sometimes, research within a field might yield conflicting results. For instance, studies on the effectiveness of a particular teaching method might show positive outcomes in one context but not in another. This inconsistency highlights the need for further exploration to understand the factors influencing these contrasting results. Consider a psychology student researching mindfulness meditation might find studies reporting its effectiveness in reducing anxiety in adults but limited research on its impact on teenagers experiencing exam stress. This inconsistency points to a knowledge gap about mindfulness's effectiveness for this specific age group and context.
    4. Unanswered Questions: As you critically analyze existing research, lingering questions might emerge. These unanswered questions often indicate areas where further investigation is needed. A business student studying the Relational Mechanisms of Manufacturer-Foreign Intermediary Relationships may find unanswered questions about export outcomes and business expansion success.
    5. Lack of Research on Specific Populations or Contexts: While a significant amount of research might exist within your chosen field, studies might focus on specific demographics or contexts. If you are an education student interested in the impact of technology on student learning, you might find extensive research on computer-aided instruction in general classrooms. However, a gap might exist in exploring the effectiveness of these technologies in special education classrooms catering to students with diverse learning needs. This highlights the need for research on the specific context of special education.
    6. Evolving Landscape of the Field: Some fields constantly evolve, with new technologies, social trends, or policy changes emerging. Research conducted even a few years ago might not reflect the current landscape. Consider a communication student researching the impact of social media on political participation might find a wealth of research on traditional platforms like Facebook and Twitter. However, the rise of newer platforms like TikTok necessitates investigating how these emerging technologies influence political engagement, particularly among younger demographics.

Remember, in this journey of exploration and refinement, each inconsistency in findings, unanswered question, and lack of research in specific areas unveils opportunities for impactful contributions. Embrace these challenges as gateways to novel insights, ensuring your research addresses critical gaps and advances the understanding of your chosen field.

If you need expert guidance to craft a robust problem statement without the time-consuming headache, don't hesitate to reach out for assistance.

Nicole Dhanraj, PhD | Motivational Octopus in Chief

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