Taming the Beast: Problem and Purpose Statements

Besides the research question, which begins the journey, the problem statement and statement of the purpose of the research will be the two most important and often repeated sentences in the report of your research. The statement of the purpose of the research is repeated a great many times to transition into and out of chapters and sections within chapters, and the function of the repetition is to remind the reader (and writer) about the focus and intention of the research.

Image by Justin Morgan

at Unsplash

The statement of the problem is focused on what is not known or the gap you are attempting to fill with your research. For example, using the research question, “To what extent are adverse vaccine reactions related to blood type?” the problem is that some people suffer adverse effects after a vaccination, but it not known why some people suffer adverse effects and others do not. Given the centrality of blood type in transplant and transfusion medicine, it is possible that adverse reactions are the result of the blood-type of the fetal matter included in some vaccines being incompatible with the recipient’s blood type.

The nature of the problem and its phrasing leads to the statement of the purpose of the research, for example, “The purpose of this quantitative research design is to establish to what extent adverse vaccine reactions are correlated with recipients’ blood types.” I might further refine that statement of the purpose by including the type of vaccines I intend to examine to establish the extent of the relationship, for example, vaccines containing fetal matter and the COVID-19 shot in particular, and I might even include the method in order to further refine my statement of the problem. 

Here is another example to consider: The research question is “What is the relationship between the perceived attractiveness of a teacher and the attribution of transformational leadership behaviors to that teacher by his or her colleagues?” In this example, the problem is that it is not known how attractiveness and the attribution of transformational leadership behaviors are related with respect to teachers and their colleagues. In other words, does being an attractive teacher mean one is more likely to be thought of as a transformational leader, in the same way as people who are more attractive are perceived to be more intelligent [1]?

A statement of the purpose of the research is the next step, and it includes a description of the means for collecting and analyzing data in a scientifically or an academically acceptable manner. Before finalizing the purpose statement, therefore, I must have explored what is possible methodologically in order to answer the research question posed.

Continuing with the above example, in a quantitative research design, the purpose statement might read as follows:

The purpose of this quantitative correlational study using a self-administered survey method is to examine the relationship between teachers’ perceptions of the attractiveness of their colleagues and those teachers’ perceptions of those colleagues’ transformational behaviors in three Californian high schools.

Notice that the purpose statement includes

  • the methodological design (quantitative correlational design),
  • the method (self-administered survey),
  • the relationships or variables I intend to examine (relationship between teachers’ perceptions of the attractiveness of their colleagues and those teachers’ perceptions of those colleagues’ transformational behaviors), and
  • the geographical location of the sample.

In essence, then, a purpose statement is a clear and concise description of the research focus that includes the main variables to be examined, the way in which the variables will be examined, and the population or context in which those variables and their relationships will be examined. Most often, the title of the research and the problem statement are closely linked, for example, in this instance. “Transformational Leadership and Teacher Attractiveness: A Survey of Three Californian Schools.” Notice that I have met the APA requirement that the title be no longer than 12 words.

In summary, the statement of the problem allows you to generate a researchable question, while the statement of the purpose of the research informs the reader about how you intend to answer that research question. The statement of the purpose of the research must be not only be congruent with the title of the research, the literature reviewed, and the methodology used to answer the research question, but also be consistently stated each time.

So, it is a good idea to keep a file from which you can cut and paste the research question, problem statement, and purpose statement when required. They are two critical foci that will help you tame the beast of information overload, the sometimes hundreds of articles you might access in a literature search.


[1] Satoshi, K., & Kovar, J. L. (2004). Why beautiful people are more intelligent. Intelligence, 32(3), 227‒243. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2004.03.003

What makes Academic Writing Academic (or Scholarly)?

Many students struggle to shift gears from, for example, writing a business email or policy document, marketing copy (including advertising), and the writing most journalists do to the way scholars or academics write. Obvious differences would be the intention and audience.

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Friends share their personal worlds, marketers sell products, journalists inform people about events and opinions about those events, and academics formally contribute their slivers of truth, be it the extent to which an immune system is compromised by a Western lifestyle to what it means to be an effective leader. Besides the intention to discover truth rather than share, sell, or inform, differentiating academic or scholarly writing from other types of writing, academic writing also differs in its purpose, structure, and tone.

Academic Writing Has a Particular Purpose

Perhaps the most important aspect of academic writing is its overall purpose, which is to answer a research question. In addition, each section of the report has a purpose or precise focus. For example, chapter one in a dissertation provides an overview of what you intend to do and how you intend to do that. Even if the first chapter is written first, it should be the last chapter reviewed, edited, and proofread before finalizing your submission because what you said you would do must be congruent with what you actually did.

One critical section of a first chapter is clarifying the background to the “problem” or unanswered research question before formalizing the statement of the problem and purpose statement [1]. For example, if you are asking a question about gender-based violence, you might cite credible statistics to show that it is an issue worthy of discussion. Other sections might highlight how published research contributes to an understanding of the topic but does not answer the specific research question posed. Still other sections might outline how you intend going about answering the research question or provide an overview of the methodological design. So, Chapter One would be focused on the implications of those statistics for motivating the research question and developing a methodology to answer the question.

Academic Writing has a Particular Structure

Academic writing is also structured in a particular way. It is intended to lead a reader to the same unambiguous conclusion as you based on the literature reviewed and the data collected and analyzed. To achieve that, when writing, it is best to be clear about the point you want to make in each section, gather the evidence in support of those points, be it from the literature you have reviewed or the data you have analyzed.

In other words, each paragraph in a section should include a focus and elaborate upon that focus. Beginning paragraphs in a section might outline what you intend to cover to make a point in that section because readers appreciate knowing where they are going, and final paragraphs to a section may draw the ground you have covered in support of a point together and sometimes also provide the foreground for what is to come in the next section.

Keeping the PEEL strategy, meaning point, evidence, explain, and link, can be helpful:

  • Introduce the point you wish to make,
  • Illustrate the point with an example or data (in other words, evidence),
  • Include elaboration or analysis of the point in terms of that example or data, and
  • Conclude with a sentence that sums up the point and links it to the paragraph that follows, the question you are attempting to answer, or the argument you are making.

Bear in mind that writing to reveal the truth is not a linear process: Each paragraph of your report is part of a spiral that deepens your own and the reader’s understanding of the topic, and there are spirals within spirals. For example, the introduction and conclusion to each chapter, section, and subsection can be seen as containers for those respective chapters, sections, and subsections. The introduction, be it a paragraph or sentence, opens the door to the point you will make, and the concluding section, paragraph, or sentence closes the door on that point or takes it forward.

Academic Writing has a Particular Tone

Academic writing also requires a certain degree of formality. That does not mean it should be sound pompous. To write formally means avoiding shortened or contracted word forms, for example, using should not instead of shouldn’t; popular phrases or cliches, like in a nutshell or often times, and casual everyday words such as okay, maybe, and really. So, bear in mind that writing a dissertation is not the same as writing a message on a social media platform. In general, one uses whole and precise words.  

Choosing words precisely is critical. The words used to convey meaning are chosen carefully so that your meaning is clear and unambiguous. There are words to avoid, for example, vague measurements like many/most, often/rarely, high/low. Consider, for example, the difference between “Most students struggle to begin writing an essay” versus “At least 62% of students struggle to begin an essay.” In other words, a reader should not be left guessing what you mean by “most.”

Likewise, absolute terms are best avoided. Even in the most robust statistical research, there would be 0.01% risk that the correlations occurred by pure chance, so it cannot be true that everyone desires to find a soulmate or that everybody responds to extrinsic motivation or that all students are motivated by excellence. In other words, nothing in science and more especially the social and business sciences can be said with absolute certainty. Data support a hypothesis, model, or finding; they never prove a hypothesis, model, or finding.

Third, academic writing is concise, straightforward, and direct. It is not about being wordy and convoluted. The complexity must be demonstrated in your thinking about the topic rather than your word choices, so if one word will do, avoid using a phrase that means much the same. Practice whittling down the word count [2] of passages you have written in those moments when you lack the energy to move forward.   

Fourth, academic writing is objective, but does not objectify. Where possible, sentences should be restructured to avoid first-person speech singular and plural (I, my, mine; we, our, ours). The focus and therefore the subject of the sentence should be on the topic, not the person who wrote about it with some notable exceptions. For example, in some qualitative methods it would be important to make one’s personal perspective on the topic explicit so that the reader can take that into account when evaluating the truth of the explication that follows. Likewise, it is preferable to use the first-person singular (I) if the only alternative is to use the rather awkward and alienating “the researcher” when reporting on the strategies you followed to gather the data.

So, for example, rather than saying, “The researcher measured the amount of oxygen emitted over a period of four minutes” or even, “I measured the amount of oxygen emitted over a period of four minutes,” I might say, “Thereafter, the amount of oxygen emitted over a period of four minutes was measured.”

Bear in mind also that the words you choose have implications: they reveal your assumptions. Consider, for example, “The researcher used a random sample of students to complete the self-administered questionnaire.” The sentence turns both the researcher reporting on what he or she did and the participants into objects, things sans consciousness. In that case, “A random sample of students was chosen to complete the self-administered questionnaire” or even, “The self-administered questionnaire was completed by students chosen on random basis” is preferable. Even, “I chose a random sample of students to complete the self-administered questionnaire” is less objectifying even if not, strictly speaking, objective.   

Bear in mind, too, that being objective does not mean objectifying your part in the research. For example, research does not conduct itself, so it inaccurate to say, “This research focused on…” It would be better to say, “This research was focused on…” or “In this research, the focus was on…” That phrasing makes the agent present but not explicit. It is very important to be clear when writing with the intention of discovering truth that one is clear about who or what has the agency in the sentence. Inanimate or externalized objects do not have the ability to act, so it is inaccurate to suggest that a ” study claimed…” It is the authors who claimed that based on the study they conducted.

To Sum It Up

Ultimately, academic writing is about presenting a clear, concise, well-structured report about how you applied appropriate methods in a rigorous, methodical, and systematic fashion to answer a question about a topic that is relevant to the field with which you are engaged. The claims or statements made are carefully and logically argued and/or supported by evidence. The intention is to present the truth discovered about the topic whilst acknowledging that all human experience and thinking is perspectival and in that sense limited.

So, while your concluding paragraph or chapter will bring the research report to completion and add your “sliver or truth,” be that a new way of looking at the topic, a refinement in the current thinking about the topic , a refutation of a finding supported by previous research, or a challenge to assumptions that have been taken for granted, your conclusion will not (and should not) ever be the final word on the topic.  


[1] The next blog focuses on the problem and purposes statements.

[2] Consider reading the previous blog, “Whittling Down the Word Count”

The Truth of It — What Motivates Excellent Research?

Ultimately, the motivation underlying a research project is a search for Truth, but it is well to remember that the Truth will always elude us because there are as many slivers of truth that contribute to the Truth as there are human beings on the Earth.

Ultimately, the motivation underlying a research project is a search for Truth, but it is well to remember that the Truth will always elude us because there are as many slivers of truth that contribute to the Truth as there are human beings on the Earth. So, until we have a framework or paradigm that can accommodate all 7.9 billion slivers of truth, never mind all the passed human beings that contributed their slivers of truth, we are still busy trying to figure out the Truth, and as long as there are contradictions and conflicts between the slivers of truth contributed, the challenge remains that of constructing a framework that resolves those contradictions and conflicts. That means that not only will there always be room to conduct further research, but also, when writing up your research, you are formally contributing your sliver of truth about a particular topic in a particular field to the project of constructing a framework that can contain the Truth.

To make your contribution to that framework, you might confirm someone else’s contribution, with or without including a different context or relationship; challenge another’s contribution, with or without offering a meta view that refutes or accommodates the opposing view; or offer insight by approaching the same question from a different vantage point.

For example, research in the life sciences might replicate a study exactly to confirm or dispute published findings that, for example, mice deprived of calcium are vulnerable to osteoporosis. In the social and business sciences, one might replicate a study in a different context. One might explore the extent to which, for example, job satisfaction is correlated with extrinsic motivation (monetary reward) in an individualistic culture, based on research by Huang (2013) showing a strong positive correlation between job satisfaction and extrinsic motivation in more a collectivist culture like China [1]. 

Research may also arise out of a challenge or practical problem to be solved, such as conflict in the mining industry or the challenge of humanizing remote work, or it might arise from a contradiction in a theoretical framework, such as social support both mediating and exacerbating stress. In the former examples, one might collect data that helps one better understand the problem and then propose solutions and even implement solutions and measure their success or not, thus engaging in what is called action research. In the latter instance, when the focus in on a theoretical contradiction, one might try to understand when and how and under what conditions social support mediates or exacerbates stress.

Research may also involve looking at a phenomenon or topic in a new way and/or pushing the envelope, and such motivations are considered appropriate at a PhD level. For example, after thinking about leadership and publishing his initial ideas about what leads leaders to excel (Bass, 1985), Bass (1990) proposed a leadership style that went beyond controlling and transacting toward facilitating and empowering followers. Since then, further developments in the field of leadership include Robert Greenleaf’s servant-leadership [4] and collectivist leadership [5], which makes it possible for the most skilled person in the moment to step up and then step down when another is more skilled for leading in the next moment. Arguably, leadership research has shifted from a focus on the leader and what the leader does to the follower to what the follower needs from a leader.

So, what is the nature of your inquiry and research question? Are you seeking to confirm a sliver of the Truth? Such studies confirm (or challenge) previous findings and are generally considered appropriate at a master’s level. Or is your intention to resolve a practical or theoretical problem or contradiction or attempting to contribute to the expansion of the frameworks that hold what truths we have discovered about the Truth? The latter two would be considered more appropriate at a PhD level.


[1] Huang, Y. (2013). How intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation affect organizational commitment and job satisfaction: A cross-cultural study in the United States and China, Theses and Dissertations, 89. https://rio.tamiu.edu/etds/89

[2] Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectation. New York: Free Press.

[3] Bass, B. M. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, (Winter), 19-31.

[4] Greenleaf, Robert. K. (1998). The power of servant leadership: Essays. L. Spears (Ed.). The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership. Berrett-Koehler. [5] Yammarino, F., Salas, E., Serban, A., Shirreffs, K., & Shuffler, M. (2012). Collectivistic leadership approaches: Putting the “we” in leadership science and practice. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 5(4), 382-402. doi:10.1111/j.1754-9434.2012.01467.x

  1. Hi Michelle. My name is Monica and I was referred to you by Marie LeRoux. We used to work together…