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Discuss How You Recognize a Problem That Is Appropriate for Doctoral Research

Doctoral ResearchThe process of identifying an appropriate problem for doctoral research can indeed be a matter of 'recognizing', although considerable deliberation and distinct creative steps may also be involved. Most doctoral students have some idea of the general topic that they would like to work on, but moving from a 'topic' to an appropriate 'problem' requires precision. Students entering a doctoral program may be starting from a variety of points with regard to preparing to write a dissertation. In some cases, it may possible to draft an appropriate problem based appropriate problem simply by adapting an existing study that one is familiar with, by changing the group, the setting, or another key variable. Some fields of study are fertile and relevant enough to accommodate, or even require, extensive studies that pinpoint key segments of the overall topic. However, this is not applicable as a general approach – in other words, in many cases it isn't as simple as modifying an existing study, or modeling one's own research on something pre-existing. However, being aware of existing research is always the starting point, as doctoral research is expected to break new ground. This in itself is one important piece of criteria with regard to selecting an appropriate problem – it has to contribute something novel to the field.

A student's personal regard for the topic in general and the problem in particular is also key. As Brause notes, one should "find a topic you love. You could be working on it for years" (Brause 30). A keen curiosity about the topic and the necessary research is indispensable. Brause also cautions one to "Choose a topic that will have significance for you after you are done" (30), again, because this confers a sense of purpose and energy regarding the study.

According to Hawley (1992: 41 – 6; cited by Brause, 44), the criteria for a workable problem are as follows: the problem must by interesting and manageable; it must be appropriate for the student's competence, it must be appropriate with regard to the data source available, and it must produce an original contribution to the field. Additionally, the problem statement should be somewhat controversial, but not overly so. These criteria work well enough as a checklist after the problem has been selected and the statement has been drafted, and are valuable factors to keep in mind while initially selecting the problem.

Contrast the difference between a problem that is appropriate for doctoral research and symptoms of a problem?

A problem that is appropriate for doctoral research will be neither too broad nor too narrow for the scope of the work, will not overlap with previous or existing studies, and will correspond to the capabilities of the student and the limitation of research in the field and setting. If any one of those conditions is not met, the process and its outcome may become problematic.

A topic that is too broad runs a high risk of overlapping with existing studies, and of being unsuccessful with regard to its own basic aims. To avoid this, any problem which includes non-specific terminology should be narrowed further. A study of 'discipline in schools', for example, evokes a specific idea in the lay person's mind, but is too broad for a doctoral dissertation; the type of 'discipline' needs to be defined, as does the type or scope of 'schools'. The opposite problem, making the focus too narrow, is less of a danger. However, there is a possibility that the available data on a very specific issue may simply be insufficient to complete the study. It is essential that this difficulty, if it exists, be diagnosed at the outset of the process.

The problem of overlapping with existing studies is an important one, because doctoral research is expected to break new ground. This is, however a problem which can be avoided by following the proper steps systematically. A review of literature is an important step in writing the dissertation itself, and will formally identify other related research, and point out gaps in existing research. Of course, much of the reading and researching which goes into creating the review will have been completed before the dissertation problem is drafted, since the dissertation problem needs to address deficiencies in current research.

Finally, as well as knowing the field, the student needs to know his or her own resources, strengths and limitations. In particular, the problem selected must be addressable using available or potentially available data. If this isn't the case, aspects of the problem will remain unresolved, leading to an inconclusive and therefore compromised study. It should be possible to ascertain or at least estimate the potential availability of data while drafting a dissertation problem and research design. The existing rational or theoretical framework also needs to be considered (Coryn, 1).

How does the statement of the problem provide the foundation for the remainder of the study?

The statement of the problem provides the focus, direction and scope of the study. All of these factors are instrumental in providing a foundation for the study. At the most basic level, the problem determines 'what' is studied, as well as the other variables of the study – sample size, setting, timing, and so on. The way in which the problem is stated, and the basis for that statement (for example, the background research that went into formulating it) determines the tone and type of research.

Of course, the identification and the statement of the problem also involves the supervisor or chair as well as the student. Brause feels that "Doctoral students are, in a sense, the 'children' of their chairs" (Brause 32). The research itself is independent, but it comes from a distinct lineage, so to speak. The research will be influenced not only by the specific approach that the student takes, but by the guidance received and the culture of the faculty. The statement of the problem, therefore, will take this explicit and implicit background into account, and the execution of the study will in turn radiate outward from that problem statement.

Implications: The implications of this weeks learning are that a problem statement is one of the most important steps toward writing a successful doctoral dissertation. This process may appear simple compared to the actual writing of the dissertation, but I can see how underestimating the process will compromise the entire process. Moreover, I can see how this process is part of a “bibliographic chain” through which a fresh idea eventually becomes conventional knowledge.

Conclusions: I will keep all of these factors in mind when drafting my problem statement. The learning during this week has given me pointers on how to proceed with the preliminary research and topic selection, as well as the perfecting of my problem statement through a full awareness of its significance and function.


Brause, Rita S. Writing Your Doctoral Dissertation: Invisible Rules for Success Routledge, 2000

Coryn, Chris L. S. "Tools for Conceptualizing, Planning, Writing and Evaluating a Doctoral Dissertation"

Davis, Gordon Bitter and Parker, Clyde Alvin. Writing the Doctoral Dissertation. Barron's Educational Series, 1997.

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