Problematic Problem Statement

One of the biggest challenges for someone starting to do research for the first time is finding a good problem to work on and the subsequent challenge is to define it clearly. Obviously, the next step is then to execute on it, but let’s not worry about this today!

I had a hard time coming up with a problem statement or even problem area in my own research. In fact, I am in my second year as a master’s student and only in the recent weeks have I really latched on to the kind of problem I want to tackle for my thesis. There is still some work on the defining side of things, but at least the core nugget is there.

There are various reasons for this difficulty especially at the master’s level: limited time, limited ability, shallow knowledge of the field, youthful inexperience… For me one of the challenges was and is the fact that problems I can think of have already been solved in a more general and probably more accurate way than I could have hoped to produce. One then needs to go beyond that.

Trials and errors are part of the process. I am very much a visual thinker and so I imagine this process as finding the weak spot or concavity among a three dimensional web of works in one’s area of interest. This is where contributions can be made. It is then a matter of seeing if you can tie links around that spot to strengthen it. I see PhD thesis as adding a new node and a master’s one as maybe modifying an existing node or reconfiguring some links.

A web of ideas : an early snapshot of the internet (Under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License)
A web of ideas : an early snapshot of the internet
(Under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License)

A weird thing I hear in the wild about research problems is: “Follow a problem you are passionate about!“. It has quite the romantic appeal, but it’s a facile way to not provide advice. How do I know what I am passionate about? There are so many interesting things out there! How do I settle on a single one? And anyway does passion really enter into the equation? Joy, satisfaction, enthusiasm? Yes. Passion?

Passion n. Extreme, compelling emotion; intense emotional drive or excitement [Webster’s New World Dictionary Second Edition]

I am not sure if this is the kind of emotion I feel or aim to feel in my day to day work. I prefer meaningful contentement. Then again I would rather edge on the simple side of things.

All in all, I don’t have advice to give on how to find a topic apart from trying things out in the field you are interested in and seeing what comes of these attempts. Sorry! I am here to say that a problem statement is very important, though. It makes everything else fall into place.

Reading the literature, one picks up on the useful content and sets aside the rest. When doing data analysis, one knows what could stand out and what shouldn’t. Implementing required systems, one has expected cost to benefits in mind. A problem statement entails a fair amount of work; however, knowing that you do have an important amount of work ahead is much better than not knowing how much (if any!) you have.

In the marathon that is thesis work, to find a good problem statement is most of the work I think. The rest then follows. It is demanding but at least it is there. I guess I am saying: take time to work on it. It won’t be wasted.

One thought on “Problematic Problem Statement

  1. Great one, Guillaume! Definitely a soft spot for me since I probably switched my project 4 times already. I can relate to everything you’re saying and I really like how you visualize a master’s and a PhD. It’s quite a neat perspective and a more optimistic one, for sure!
    I have to say that I finally landed on a project that I do feel passionate about. Despite the fact that I still don’t wake up at 6 in the morning to go pursue it, I do think of it all the time and revel in the results I get. I literally pour my heart into the experiments. Although the project isn’t in an area I’ve considered before, I find that what drives me the most is competition and the desire to accomplish something and discover something new more than the actual topic. At least for now. You are right in that maybe in a PhD, it will be the other way around or both combined.


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