What’s the Problem with Your Problem Statement?

When examining research grant proposals submitted to funding agencies, I am always amazed at the lack of detail in problem statements. The most common issue is that the “so what” question or the hook of the proposal is missing, and if it exists, it is often difficult to locate. Also, the problem description is often hidden in methodology and not clearly addressed at the beginning of the grant. How then, might this problem be corrected? Let’s begin with the definition of a research problem, then proceed with how to best compose one.

What Is a Research Problem?

Generally speaking, a research problem is a situation that needs a solution and for which there are possible solutions. Everyone wants to be young, and nobody wants to age. Aging seems like a problem that needs a solution. But there is no possible solution. People must age. Thus, research on how to stay young forever makes little sense. On the other hand, a solution to a problem that fills a gap in the existing knowledge is a good basis for a research problem. An example might be that obesity among adolescents can be reduced via healthy eating and regular exercise. Here obesity is the problem, and there are possible solutions. A good problem will originate from a research question formulated from observation, a literature review, a study of previous experiments, and your own preliminary data.

What Is a Problem Statement?

The description of the issue that currently needs to be addressed will be the problem statement. This will be the focus of your research, provide the context of the study and generate the questions that your research will answer. Your problem statement, written in one sentence, will establish the issues and information you will be discussing, and will be what the rest of the proposal hinges upon. You might also want to think of the problem statement as the goal of your research under which everything will unfold. This means that in subsequent sections of the application there should be no surprises. If it can’t be found in the problem section, then it either does not belong in the study, or the problem statement itself needs to be re-written.

The following example establishes the totality of what will subsequently unfold: “Dietary behaviors are still being formed in grade school and middle school children; thus, changing unhealthy eating behaviors to healthy ones can go a long way in addressing the problem of childhood obesity”1. While this problem statement is just one sentence, it should be accompanied by a few paragraphs that elaborate on the problem.

What Are Key Components of the Problem Statement?

The problem statement should “hook” the reader and establish a persuasive context for what follows. You need to be able to clearly answer the questions: what is the problem and why should this problem be studied? At the same time, the problem statement limits the scope by focusing on some variables and not others. It also provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate why these variables are important.

Problem statements often contain the following three elements:

  1. The problem itself should be stated clearly and with enough contextual detail to establish why it is important. An example might be: “The hazards of being overweight or obese in childhood and adolescence have been well researched. The Bogalusa Heart Study found that 60% of the overweight children by the time they reach 10 y have at least 1 biochemical or clinical cardiovascular risk factor and children 25% or more overweight have more than 2.”1
  1. The method of solving the problem is often stated as a claim or a working thesis. For example, under the auspices of school-based interventions, “increasing fruit and vegetable intake, controlling portion sizes, and limiting sweetened drink consumption along with regular exercise and behavior modifications are very important parts of strategies aimed at combating childhood obesity.”1
  1. The testing of the problem will take place via the objectives such as (a) examining if the reduction of certain behaviors can lead to changes in eating habits, which in turn combat childhood obesity, and (b) establishing that school-based interventions are a major channel for behavior modification in exercise and eating habits.

All proposals will require a problem statement, which will explain to the reader the goal of the study, how the goal will unfold and be tested and what types of studies or literature will be referenced. Without the problem statement, the reader may become lost in technical terms and may just skip sections trying to find the purpose of the study. It is essential that the problem statement is presented immediately and clearly, so the reviewers recognize and understand the importance and purpose of the proposal.

[1] Sharma, M. (2015). Dietary Education in School-Based Childhood Obesity Prevention Programs. Advances in Nutrition, 6(5), 2075. Retrieved from

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

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