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Often, doctoral learners mistakenly believe that a feasible research project can be developed based on personal experience or an attempt to solve a problem that is personal to them. Although, passion for the project is important to the impetus of the discovery process, ultimately a dissertation topic must emerge from problem spaces that exist in an empirical research literature. Why do you think this is the case? How does the reliance on literature serve the needs of a researcher and the research project?


use attached article for source to provide cited reference 

By Cheryl Lentz

Problems and Problem Spaces

Essential Questions

1. What is a problem space? Why is a problem important to the doctoral process?

2. Where and how does one �nd a problem space in the research?

3. What is the difference between a topic of interest and a research study?

Introduction: The Problem Space and Its Importance in the
Doctoral Process

Creation of a dissertation begins with interest in a speci�c topic. Ensuring that the topic of interest transforms

into a doable study on an identi�ed problem space based on prior research represents the key to an effective

dissertation. The goal of this chapter is to delve into this understanding, particularly identifying a problem

space, formerly known as the research gap that serves as the foundation of the dissertation. An additional

purpose of this chapter is to transition from an initial topic of interest to a topic worthy of doctoral study. A

problem space represents the difference between what is known in a �eld or research and what is not known.

There are several reasons doctoral learners should identify research needs and problem spaces:

To contribute to the scienti�c knowledge that exists on a topic.

To acknowledge the existing research that exists on a topic.

To inspire future research.

To compare current research with the desired future state of a topic or condition.

To depict what is not yet known.

To determine the missing elements in existing literature.

Ideally, the purpose of doctoral-level research is to add to the greater body of knowledge within the appropriate

�eld. To make this contribution, one must �rst identify a problem space in current research that leads to a

speci�c problem for a particular group of people (e.g., business owners, educators, learners, ministers, health

care leaders) instead of just a topic of interest or personal curiosity.

Where and How Does One Find the Problem Space?
Doctoral learners must conduct a thorough review of the literature and read prior studies on their dissertation

topics. Ultimately, the key to identifying a problem space to study is to read widely and deeply, conducting a

systematic review of the available information on the topic. If starting with an outcome-based approach, the

researcher begins with the end in mind and works backward from a desired outcome or future state. For

example, if a church experiences a decline in attendance (outcome), the goal is to work backward from the

desired outcome or future state (increased, consistent attendance), regarding answering the question of why

this decline exists. Utilizing Socratic questioning represents an effective method of determining why the

problem exists. The process requires continually asking questions for separating the symptom from the cause.

In the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) program, for example, the focus remains on a business

problem; the purpose of the research study is to �nd answers that owners of businesses can use to further the

needs of their business. Simply put, what do business owners need or want to know that would help save or

make money for the business? If one is within the �eld of education or enrolled in the Doctor of Education

(EdD) program, what is the education problem for principals and educators? If in ministry, what is the

ecumenical problem the church or leadership faces? Within the social sciences, what are the problems

currently faced in health care leadership, for example? Regardless of the focus of study, a dissertation rests on

the foundation of the problem emanating from the problem space in the topic of interest.

Researchers must �nd a problem space that exists within the current research to which the doctoral study

may then contribute. Consider this scenario: When bringing a new person to start at a company that conducts

scienti�c research in the �eld of leukemia, the trainer needs to bring the new employee into alignment with

the existing staff. The trainer needs to tell the new hire everything about the company, the job, and the known

scienti�c research up to the moment in time at which the new employee begins work (his/her �rst day). The

trainer needs to convey the mission and purpose of the company, particularly about the completion of speci�c

research to the present time, as well as what researchers continue to work on to �nd answers regarding types

of leukemia not yet curable.

The trainer further explains to the new employee what the company does not know and the plan that the

company has regarding research in progress to gain answers to these unsolved problems. This is where the

researcher’s piece of the company puzzle becomes meaningful. Think of how a puzzle piece �ts into the

overall whole—to build on the other puzzle pieces. Often, when assembling a puzzle, one might complete the

border �rst, and then �ll in the missing pieces as they connect to the border, thereby continually building on

previous work. Similarly, the company evaluates how the new employee’s piece of the puzzle contributes to the

overall whole of �nding cures for leukemia. What is the problem space between what the scienti�c �eld

currently knows about cures for leukemia, and what remains unknown to which the work of this new

employee will speci�cally contribute as part of the company? This clarity of purpose justi�es the need for

research regarding potential cures in the �eld of leukemia based on this problem space.

Identi�cation of the Problem Space by Patricia Chess

All learners must identify how they will focus their research to produce an original

dissertation. This involves the difference between what is known in a �eld of research and

what is not yet understood. This process involves reading the literature and becoming

deeply familiar with how a speci�c topic has been studied, how the research is trending, and

what approaches have been used to study it in order to identify what still needs to be


The topic, the problem statements that other researchers have de�ned, and the approaches

that other researchers have taken, all constitute the problem space for a study. The problem

space is a way to help you establish some boundaries for the literature review so that you

have a clear idea of what to include and what to exclude. What needs to be understood is the

result of the analysis of the literature review within the problem space, and the problem

statement expresses how the proposed study will address what needs to be understood.

Becoming deeply familiar with how a speci�c topic has been studied involves reading and

synthesizing the literature related to the problem space, focusing on the past �ve years. Lack

of research on a topic, or personal interest in an unresearched topic, are not suf�cient

reasons to do a dissertation. Just because something has not been researched does not mean

it should be. Therefore, the learner must be well read on their topic to identify ways their

study will add to the existing body of knowledge on the topic.

Problems based in practice

Practice-based research may initially de�ne the problem based in a practice within an

organization or setting; however, the approach to investigating the problem needs to follow

scholarly research procedures. This means that the problem space needs to include

literature that is scholarly in nature so that the proposed dissertation research will advance

knowledge and practice. The literature review should include peer-reviewed articles from

research-based journals as well as journals on professional practice and research-based

industry journals.

There are a variety of ways to synthesize the literature. Below is a set of steps that may be


First, explore original literature on the topic. The topic should focus on an issue

germane to the learner’s program of study to determine what has been discovered and

what still needs to be understood.

Second, while exploring the original literature, identify the broad topics and problems

researched and trace the evolution of the research on the problem. How did the focus

change? What �ndings emerged from these studies?

Third, describe the research published during the past 2 to 3 years to discover what has

been discovered, what problems have been studied, and what still needs to be

understood. Discuss the trends and themes that emerged. Studies that were published

within the past 2 to 3 years will still be relevant (with the past 5 years) at the point of


Note: The problem space for the dissertation study should primarily come from

the empirical research literature or studies dated within 3 to 5 years of the

learner’s projected graduation date. This is a recommendation, not a rule.

Dissertations can be used in the literature review; however, one must supplement

dissertation citations with citations from other peer-reviewed research on the


Fourth, de�ne the topic and problem statement by synthesizing the recent studies,

including trends, and de�ne what still needs to be understood.

While the verbiage in this section highlights a set of steps designed to help Grand Canyon

University (GCU) doctoral learners identify what still needs to be understood for their

studies, there are other methods that can be used. These include replication studies,

recommendations for future research from prior studies and literature reviews, adding to a

broadly researched area through clearly targeted research, reframing problems, and

synthesizing areas of research to de�ne a new or innovative area of research. This section

must clearly identify the speci�c sources that form the basis for what will become the

problem for the study.

To complete this section, the learner describes how the study is situated within the problem

space discussed. The learner should also describe how the study may add to the body of

literature. Finally, the learner should discuss any potential practical or professional

applications that might occur as an outcome or application of the study.

Learners can access further information on these strategies on the DC Network

(https://dc.gcu.edu/dissertation/dissertation-templates) website under the Residency tab (on

the left side of the Home page). Also, see the video


he_literature_1st_steps_to_your_dis) by Dr. June Maul regarding �nding the gap in the


Approach to Justifying the Need for a Study: There Are Many Options

Prior to designing a research study, doctoral learners, as well as experienced researchers, must de�ne and

justify the need for conducting the study. There is a variety of ways to accomplish this goal. Some approaches

may appear to be easier, such as arguing the scienti�c basis for needing to duplicate and replicate studies,

while others may appear much more complex and require synthesizing research from a number of different

areas or a number of different points of view. To justify the need, the researcher must employ sound logical

arguments and support those arguments from the literature. Several options are presented in this section:

replicating, identifying recommendations for future research, and adding to the results of existing studies

(Maul, 2016).


One route a researcher can take to justifying a need for a study is to conduct a replication study. There are

three different approaches to replication: duplication, generalization, and extension (Laerd Dissertation, n.d.).

Sometimes, replication is associated with duplication. For example, the GCU doctoral learner may take a piece

of published research and repeat it, using an identical approach to determine if the results obtained are the

same as those of the original authors. In other cases, the researcher will request the original data that was

collected and reanalyze it to check that the original authors were accurate in their analysis techniques (Laerd

Dissertation, n.d.; Maul, 2016).

In contrast to replication, duplication has a very narrow focus, which has led some journal editors to shy away

from accepting replication studies. The reality is that most research, whether completed by academics or

dissertation learners at the undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral level, involves either generalization or

extension. This may simply be replicating a study to determine whether the �ndings are generalizable or

applicable with a different population, sample, setting, context, or across treatment conditions. Another route

to replication can involve the researcher extending the results of prior studies to take into account new

research designs, methods, measurement procedures, and/or data-analysis techniques. These different types

of replication studies then can be labeled as duplication, generalization, or extension research. In many cases,

researchers use these terms interchangeably, or researchers may even combine parts of each method or

choose to take one approach (Laerd Dissertation, n.d.; Maul, 2016).

Recommendations for Future Research

Often, doctoral learners and other researchers will review the recommendations authors of research studies

make for future research. For example, Chapter 5 in the GCU dissertation affords researchers the opportunity to

share their recommendations for future study. This can be one of the easier routes to use in developing the set

of arguments for conducting a study; however, the recommendation alone is not enough to substantiate a need

for a study. The researcher should identify the reasons for conducting the study beyond the various

researchers’ recommendation. This is done through citing the need based on the work of other authors and

researchers. Many of these recommendations include replicating a study. However, some also recommend

new and different studies. Many times, these recommendations are based on limitations from the existing

study (Maul, 2016).

Literature Reviews

Another source for recommended studies is literature reviews on a broad topic. A literature review often spans

a period of 10 years or more. It reviews the nature of the research done during that period. In the synthesis of

that research, it recommends other future research (Maul, 2016).

Adding to the Results of Studies Conducted in a Broadly Researched Area

There are very broadly researched topic areas that have had hundreds if not thousands of studies completed in

them (Maul, 2016). Two areas appear concurrently in the disciplines of education, business, and psychology

though with different focuses in these three disciplines. One broad area of study is the relationship of

leadership and organizational climate. These include studies such as the correlation of leadership behaviors or

traits and measures of climate or measures of employee or teacher satisfaction. Some of the different

leadership areas include transformational leadership and servant leadership. One could add to this �eld as

new models of leadership such as spiritual leadership are introduced. Another area studied in psychology,

education, and business is the effectiveness of the use of games (and related approaches) for learning.

Quasi-experimental designs often are used in the social sciences. It is easy to justify the use of different

gaming technologies, actual games speci�c to topics such as math, or even simulations particularly in

business and strategy (Maul, 2016). An example in education occurs when a doctoral researcher identi�es a

topic of interest as inclusion classrooms. He/she identi�es a study whereby a survey was created to measure

general education teacher perceptions of inclusion. Another researcher built on that study by conducting it in

a different setting. A recommendation for future research was conducting a qualitative study with interviews

of teacher perceptions of the topic. Thus, the doctoral research combined the two studies. He/she administered

the survey to a sample of general education teachers, but also conducted interviews with those teachers to

glean further insight on their perspectives of teaching learners with special needs in the inclusive setting of

the general education classroom.

Integrating Two or More Areas of Research

Future studies can often be justi�ed by integrating two or more areas of research. For example, there are

quantitative as well as qualitative studies exploring leadership behaviors/practices and climate or culture, and

there are studies exploring the relationship of climate and performance (Maul, 2016). These three variables

could be integrated to explore the relationship of leadership behaviors/practices, climate or culture, and

organizational or individual results—either as a quantitative or qualitative study. While many of these studies

�nd and can explain positive results, not all studies do so. As such, part of the justi�cation is to be able to

ultimately generalize the results and create theories (Maul, 2016).

Reframing Problems

When conducting research, many topics are stated as problems (Maul, 2016). One might research what leads to

homelessness or why Black males drop out of college. In part, this is due to a predisposition of the human

brain to identify problems rather than state the area of solution needed (Maul, 2016). For example, one GCU

dissertation focused on the literature on homelessness in women (Combs, 2012). All the homelessness studies

found were about the causes of the problem. This learner reframed the issue to learn what enabled a group of

successful women to overcome homelessness. This process of reframing can lead to more innovative research

(Maul, 2016).

Synthesis of Areas of Research to De�ne a New/Innovative Area of Research

More advanced researchers may synthesize information and recommendations from a number of areas to

de�ne a new approach not yet taken by anyone in research. Many of these may appear to be unrelated;

however, through the process of synthesis, they are used to create a new area for research. This type of

research often can be driven by a social or business need (Maul, 2016). For example, a study in the preliminary

phases of being conducted by faculty members at one college investigated the use of ZOOM as an interactive

tool for doctoral learners and their dissertation committees (Berman et al., 2016). The literature identi�ed

several needs for this study:

1. There is need to identify tactics to retain doctoral learners.

2. Online doctoral programs are increasing and need to become more effective.

3. There is a need to develop doctoral learners (especially online) into researchers.

4. There is a need to use techniques such as video conferencing not only in teaching, but also in building

relationships with and between learners.

5. Some research identi�ed that a video presence can also increase social presence.

6. Doctoral learners often feel isolated. (Berman et al., 2016)

As a result, the topic de�ned focuses on how the use of ZOOM for coaching doctoral learners in�uences

psychological factors such as social presence, social isolation, motivation, and research self-ef�cacy, which

are all known to lead to increased retention (Berman et al., 2016).

There are several methods doctoral learners can use to identify and justify the problem space for a research

study. Ultimately, it is imperative the learner move from a topic of interest to identifying a research-based

problem space for their study. An important part of this process, again, leads back to the literature review and

reading widely and broadly on the topic. To justify the need, it is important that the researcher employ sound

logical arguments and support those arguments from the literature (Maul, 2016).

Bringing the Reader Current

The role and responsibility of the researcher is to provide a reasonable level of context for the study, ensuring

that the reader follows the path and purpose of the dissertation to understand the problem space that exists.

This, in turn, provides the justi�cation for the research study and serves the greater body of knowledge and

humanity. The doctoral researcher, therefore, has a responsibility to bring the reader current about everything

known about the topic up to the time of publication of the study. What do industry leaders, academicians, and

experts know about this �eld of study and about the existing problem spaces in research? Consider again the

onboarding of a new member of a company team. The role of the trainer is to provide background and context

for the newly hired employee by communicating everything he/she needs to know about the history, mission,

and purpose (background) of the company and the new employee’s role (context) in the company. The role of

the researcher is similar in that the doctoral researcher provides background and context for the reader to

understand how the research �lls the identi�ed research problem space. The researcher identi�es for the

reader what experts, scholars, and academicians in the �eld know about this �eld of study to date as well as

what they still do not know. The difference between the known and the unknown is the problem space that

forms the foundation of the dissertation study and provides relevance for the study.

For example, if medicine cures 85% of the types of leukemia that exist, then 15% of the types remain yet

incurable. When conducting a study related to the remaining 15%, then, the researcher must explain all that is

known about the curable 85% to provide historical context and a foundation for the reader. The researcher

must then explain what remains unknown (the other 15% is also known as a problem space in research),

building on the understanding and �ndings of previous research. Within this 15%, then, the researcher

identi�es a speci�c focus of the continued research. What piece of this unknown represents the focus of the

particular study? How will this study contribute to the greater body of knowledge by moving the

understanding of this topic forward? In the context of the current example, how will new research contribute

to the understanding of what is not yet understood about strains of leukemia that are not yet curable?

The important element here is the continuity of connection to past research. Research including the doctoral

dissertation study does not live in a vacuum. Instead, the doctoral study, like all research, �ts into the

academic circle of life, building on the work of those researchers who came before with the goal of expanding

this knowledge base and moving the overall understanding and knowledge of a topic forward. Again, if one

looks at the problem space of what is known (85%) and what remains unknown (15%), a clear identi�cation of a

problem space exists, justifying the need for further study. This problem space includes the identi�cation of

additional questions for which the doctoral study is in search of answers. The research study becomes a piece

of the puzzle within the larger academic body of knowledge on which others may build to continue moving

the process forward. This process of moving understanding forward is known as knowledge management.

As researchers continue to explore their topics, they learn to sift,

sort, and separate available knowledge, deciding which

information to include in the literature review and which may not

meet quality standards. Subsequently, the researcher manages the

knowledge acquired from the research efforts as part of the

process of creating synthesis of research studies and articles on

the topic. In essence, the researcher becomes a detective on a

quest to identify from the extant research inconsistencies,

misalignments, and omissions, as well as debates among scholars

and experts regarding conclusions and �ndings from research

data. On this quest, there are several strategies doctoral learners can use to identify problem spaces. Through a

systematic review of the literature, they can identify what researchers have discovered about the topic and

what they have yet to discover. As doctoral learners read, they should document questions that arise. Finding

no answers to those questions may mean they have discovered a problem space in the literature. While

reading, learners can examine the abstract, introduction, and recommendations for future study in the


On a practical note, doctoral learners can review recommendations for future study in the end sections of a

research study or examine Chapter 5 of a dissertation. Upon completion of a dissertation study, the doctoral

researcher offers recommendations for further study. These recommendations include evaluation of the study

along with suggestions that future researchers may consider. Knowing the recommendations for future

research may lead a researcher to investigate a potential problem space, but a list of researcher

recommendations is not suf�cient to justify the need for a study. Further exploration and explanation of the

reasons for a problem space must be addressed.

Research Problem vs. Topic of Interest
Upon identi�cation of the problem space to be explored in the dissertation study, the next step is to move

further from the topic of interest to a problem, and then from a problem to an empirical-based research study

that formalizes the problem statement and includes a purpose statement for the study. Remember, the search

for a topic may begin with a researcher’s initial interest; however, a doctoral dissertation study requires much

more than personal curiosity.

Ideally, one might think strategically of a topic that not only piques one’s interest, but strategically supports

the doctoral learner’s future career goals as well. Upon completion of the dissertation, the doctoral scholar

becomes an emerging expert in the �eld of the dissertation study. One can use an outcome-based approach,

where the goal is to start at the end and work backward. This approach begins with asking appropriate

questions, such as

What type of expertise does the researcher intend to gain as a result of this doctoral study?

What kind of expert might the doctoral learner picture himself or herself after graduation?

If one can visualize what the future may look like, one might consider selecting a topic and �nding the

research problem space that supports both the learner’s passion and career ambitions, as well as one that

meets GCU guidelines for appropriate doctoral-level research.

As doctoral learners transition from a topic of interest to a problem worthy of doctoral study, they must clearly

identify why a need for this research remains. To do so, begin by considering what questions remain

unanswered within a particular �eld of study as identi�ed within this problem space. What remains unknown

that is important to this �eld of study? What questions are experts debating that remain unanswered that are

important to leaders within the �eld? For example, in the �eld of leukemia research, according to the Mayo

Clinic (2016), “acute lymphocytic leukemia [common in children] can also occur in adults, though the chance

of a cure is greatly reduced” (para. 3). Thus, in this speci�c area, a problem space exists regarding knowledge

of this speci�c form of leukemia, which speci�cally for adults has no known cure.

Establishing and Rationalizing the Signi�cance of the Problem

Moving from a topic of interest (a topic one is simply curious about) to a topic worthy of doctoral study as part

of an original contribution is an important distinction. A research study is far more than simply a class

assignment or a research paper. Conducting a dissertation study requires careful evaluation of the topic before

proceeding further. This section adds one more element to this evaluation regarding the signi�cance of the


The signi�cance of the problem considers how many people are in need of answers to this problem. For

example, is this a topic of value to only a few people in a small organization, or is there an implication for a

broader and expanded interest and concern for answers that the study may �nd? When considering a topic,

the doctoral researcher needs to address the signi�cance of the problem. Although the problem might not rise

to the level of solving world hunger, the problem must be of concern to an academic �eld of study for which

many people would be interested in the �ndings or results. Additionally, that a doctoral researcher observes an

absence of research in their respective area of focus is not enough to substantiate or justify signi�cance (Cai et

al., 2019). As outlined above, locating and �lling a problem space in the research is to connect previous

research to current research to continue to shape the conversation and advance the �eld of study.

For example, a researcher might have an interest in the �eld of leadership and might consider furthering

career leadership ambitions within the �eld of accounting. Therefore, becoming an expert in the �eld of

accounting leadership holds potential career possibilities. In observing issues around the of�ce, many people

report a frustrating problem, offering an opportunity for research into this issue in an effort to help; the

employees report frustration about the amount of time the company allows for vacation and personal time in

the of�ce. In using a critical thinking strategy, the researcher begins by asking simple questions. Is this

It’s not what we know or what we

think we know, it is what we can

prove that is the focus of research.

problem simply at this of�ce? Is this a problem that others may also share in the �eld of accounting, or is it

simply something unique to this company? Because of the identi�cation of this problem of vacation time and

job satisfaction, the logical next step for the doctoral researcher is to begin reading on the topic in search of

additional research studies to determine what research exists that might merit moving this topic from a

workplace issue to identi�cation as a possible problem space that merits a study.

Initial research indicates that the problem is one of turnover. Since 2013, for some reason that may or may not

be related to the amount of vacation and personal time the company offers, there has been a 50% increase in

people leaving the company. This 50% represents 50 people who have left in the past 18 months. Upon

conducting some simple research, the researcher �nds that the cost of one person leaving a company could

range from several thousands of dollars to several hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, depending on the

cost of hiring and training a replacement for the person leaving in a particular position and �eld of expertise.

Further research indicated that this problem is not just at this accounting �rm, but exists at many accounting

�rms, potentially within the state, region, and perhaps throughout the country. Since 2013, for some reason,

turnover increased dramatically, beginning an increasing trend at great cost to accounting �rms. Did people

quit over the issue of vacation and personal time, or is there another reason to consider? There then is

tremendous value in this research if it could be determined why so many accountants voluntarily quit each

year. Notably, this research might have signi�cant value to a CEO or board of directors of an accounting �rm

because, if company leaders knew the answers to why accountants continued to leave, company leadership

might be able to put programs in place to �x this problem and stop this huge expense from negatively

in�uencing the pro�tability of the company. Consequently, the magnitude of this program is indeed of

signi�cance to the company as well as to the �eld of accounting. Because of this potential signi�cance, if

corroborated by empirical evidence, a justi�cation may exist for conducting research in this area.

It is important to bear in mind that the purpose of research is simply to either explore possible answers

(qualitative research) or to con�rm what one thinks one might know as the answer (quantitative research).

The researcher must be prepared for all possible explanations in an attempt to �nd probable solutions of value

to business owners, organizational leaders, and the academic community. Continuing with the accounting

leadership example, examination of key performance

indicators may establish whether a problem is of signi�cance

to a �eld. Once again, one can use this outcome-based

approach to look at the potential result of this study. What if

research found answers to the question of why accountants

quit? Might these answers make or save a company

signi�cant amounts of money each year? When one views this problem through the eyes of the business

owner or a CEO, one can objectively evaluate the merit of this research using cost-bene�t analysis. In this

example, there is signi�cant value to �nding a solution to this problem measured in terms of key performance

indicators such as cost, expense, return on investment (ROI), and return on assets (ROA). The process �nally

transitions from this problem-based research to an empirically based research study, as the focus is on what

one can prove rather than on what one knows, opines, or speculates. To be persuasive to the reader, writing

must extend beyond personal opinions and experiences, as well as simply a topic of interest.

Determine Signi�cance of the Problem Checklist
How will a researcher know whether the topic of interest and problem are of interest to business owners,

educators, ecumenical leaders, or the rest of the industry in which the problem resides? To begin, start with

these four steps.

1. Who has the problem? Is the problem unique to just one organization or individual, or does the problem

in�uence other similar individuals, organizations, or the industry in general?

2. What is the current estimated cost of the problem? Costs may be tangible or intangible; the researcher

must consider both types of costs.

3. Is there a way to ask questions to gain answers that could be of value to those individuals or

organizations with the problem?

4. Describe the research previously conducted on this problem.

As one evaluates the importance of the problem to the overall �eld of study as well as to academic scholars in

search of answers, the next step includes exploration of the connection to the rest of the study. After

identifying a topic of interest, moving to a topic worthy of doctoral study by identifying the problem spaces

and the signi�cance of the problem spaces, it then becomes crucial to connect these pieces to the entire study.

Each chapter of the doctoral dissertation is important to the overall whole and each chapter has a role to play

as part of the process, which will be the focus of the next section.

How the Problem Space Informs the Development of Other
Chapter Sections

Continuity of the dissertation study is vital to the success and quality of the overall writing. Each chapter does

not exist by itself. Instead, each chapter is a building block to the success and quality of the entire study. The

identi�ed problem space provides the foundation and justi�cation for the study as well as the ability to

connect all �ve chapters of the study.

Think of the identi�cation of a problem space as the thread woven throughout the entire �ve-chapter

dissertation study to bring congruency and connection to the study. Each chapter has its individual purpose.

Chapter 1 addresses the problem and purpose of the study. Chapter 2 presents the literature review to provide

context and justi�cation to the identi�ed problem space. Chapter 3 describes the methodology of the study to

allow others to understand, critique, and possibly duplicate the study. Chapter 4 presents the results and

�ndings of the study. Chapter 5 offers conclusions to the study and suggestions for further research that arose

during the process of the current study. The common thread throughout this tapestry is the identi�cation of

the missing stitch in the form of the questions not yet answered within a particular study. It is the

identi�cation of the problem space. It is explaining how this study will contribute to the greater body of

knowledge in a signi�cant way.

As this chapter began, the discussion centered on how to evaluate whether a topic of interest could be a

problem worthy of doctoral study. Questions to be addressed in making this determination include asking

whether the topic of interest is truly a problem for which industry leaders are seeking answers and whether

further study could add signi�cant value to the greater body of knowledge.

To return to the example of leukemia, one can easily see how the problem space of 15% included areas for

which cures and answers did not yet exist. To develop a meaningful research study, experts isolated one

particular avenue in which a need for answers was of vital importance to the �eld. The researchers clearly

identi�ed a problem space that existed within the scienti�c community for which further study was

necessary. The literature review was a means to justify the need for the study to the reader, including the

committee and the Institutional Review Board (IRB). For an audience who would directly bene�t from the

�ndings or results of the study, this justi�cation was more than the identi�cation of a problem; it was the

illumination of not only the depth of the problem, but also the value of �nding solutions.

Research is not the pursuit of an agenda or the quest for con�rmation of results; therefore, researchers must

prepare themselves for all possible answers. Even if the research produces negative results, the information

remains valuable, as the research indicates that this is a path that one need not follow.

Consider Edison and the invention of the light bulb. The signi�cance of the importance of the advances of

electricity cannot be overstated; however, not every path proved useful. Edison conducted many experiments

with each one adding to the body of knowledge of how not to build a light bulb. The �nal experiment was a

success story. The light bulb, however, would not have been possible without eliminating the wrong answers

and the wrong paths to pursue. These negative research results were in no way less valuable to the overall

process than the �nal success. Each step in the process offered a connection between past research and the

learning from each failed experiment along the way. It is necessary for doctoral researchers to value and

prepare for all possible answers.

Student Examples of the Development of the Problem Space and Problem

A researcher needs to ensure that the information provided about a study is well aligned. The research must

ensure that the “Background of the Problem” section �ows out of the proposed topic in the “Introduction”

section. The stated need or gap for the study leads to the development of the one-sentence problem statement

in the “Problem Statement” section. In addition, the literature from the “Background of the Problem” section

often contains models, theories, and concepts potentially used to develop the “Theoretical Foundations”

section of the dissertation. The researcher must ensure that the “Theoretical Foundations” section aligns with

the “Problem Statement” section and provides the theories, models, and/or concepts to develop the research

questions for a qualitative study as well as the research questions and hypotheses for a quantitative study.

Example: Qualitative

With an understanding of how to construct the problem space, it is meaningful to read and re�ect on how the

two examples below illustrate the requirements for alignment. The title for the proposed study was “Perceived

Resilience and Success of Non-traditional Doctoral Level Students: A Case Study” (Sandoval, 2016). This

section of the proposal for this study began with the approach of identifying a societal need. In this section,

Sandoval �rst discussed the current societal or social issue to reduce attrition in doctoral programs:

Doctoral program attrition impacts not only the university but also the doctoral students. Doctoral

programs historically have the largest attrition rates of all post-baccalaureate programs, with rates as

high as 43% (Ampaw & Jaeger, 2012). Many researchers have studied doctoral attrition and what

factors impact or contribute to students leaving their doctoral programs (Hart, 2012). High attrition is

not only a problem for university reputations. It also negatively impacts students �nancially and

emotionally, leading to an increased need to examine how universities can help curb attrition.

(Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012). (p. 2)

In the next paragraph, Sandoval then explored the broad area of research on the challenges associated with

completing a doctoral degree and the role of resilience, a broad area of related research. This section focuses

directly on challenges faced by nontraditional doctoral students. Then the researcher identi�ed the broad area

of resilience as a capability for overcoming challenges faced.

With the increasing availability of online doctoral programs, the challenges associated with

completing a doctoral degree have increased in variety and complexity. Doctoral learners are no

longer only those who can commit to full-time studies at a traditional institution. Many non-

traditional doctoral students take online doctoral programs. These non-traditional students must have

the capability to overcome various obstacles, formally known as having resilience (Hee Lee et. al,

2013). Castro et. al (2011) have shown negative outside in�uences experienced during a doctoral

program may have an impact on motivation to succeed, both positive and negative. For example,

recent research identi�ed doctoral students with minor dependents show statistically more resilience

and tend to be more successful in their doctoral programs than those without (Martinez, et. al, 2013).

On the other hand, Gardner, et. al (2012) found part-time doctoral students to have a more dif�cult time

completing their doctoral programs than full-time doctoral students. (Sandoval, 2016, p. 2–3)

The section next presents future research recommendations from current studies from the past �ve years.

This section concludes by presenting the problem statement for the research based on these current


On the other hand, Gardner et al. (2012) found part-time doctoral students to have a more dif�cult time

completing their doctoral programs than full-time doctoral students. They suggest further research

should be done to identify reasons for this phenomenon. In addition, Gardner and Gopaul (2012) and

Castro, et. al (2011) stated further research needs to be completed on why different life events, which

contribute to resiliency during doctoral programs, have different impacts on learner motivation to

succeed. Based on the de�ned gap, the problem statement for this research will be it is not known

how online doctoral students perceive resilience factors contributed to their doctoral completion.

(Sandoval, 2016, p. 3)

The researcher developed the historical background from the presentation used to de�ne the problem space

(here referred to as the need for the study/gap). The slide in Figure 6.1 shows the areas of societal need, broad

area of research, and future recommendations.

Once learners have an understanding of how to select and think through using the theories, models, and/or

concepts needed to provide the theoretical framework for the study, they should take a few minutes to read

and re�ect on how the two examples below illustrate the requirements for this section. The Sandoval (2016)

Figure 6.1

Background of the Problem Section De�ning the Gap or Need for Future Research for a Qualitative Study

Note. Adapted from Sandoval, 2016, slide 5.

example mentioned earlier in this chapter is qualitative. This used a single psychological model on resilience.

In this section, Sandoval (2016) �rst named and described the model:

This proposed research will use a psychological model of resilience to provide the theoretical

foundation for this section. Resilience is de�ned as the ability to adapt to extreme circumstances and

using those experiences to achieve positive outcomes and success despite adversity (Fraser, Richman,

& Galinsky, 1999). (p. 4)

Sandoval then relates it to the research focus and problem statement, identifying the two models she will use

(resilience and retention). Resilience, a three-part model, can provide the foundation for describing how

students succeed by overcoming challenges. The retention model will support the student success factors. The

researcher concludes the paragraph and identi�es that it will be used to develop the research questions and

guide the data collection, “These models will provide the theoretical framework to develop the research

questions as well as the data collection approaches for this proposed research” (Sandoval, 2016, p. 5).

On the other hand, Gardner, et. al (2012) found part-time doctoral students to have a more dif�cult time

completing their doctoral programs than full-time doctoral students. They suggest further research

should be done to identify reasons for this phenomenon. In addition, Gardner and Gopaul (2012) and

Castro, et. al (2011) stated further research needs to be completed on why different life events, which

contribute to resiliency during doctoral programs, have different impacts on learner motivation to

succeed. Based on the de�ned gap, the problem statement for this research will be it is not known

how online doctoral students perceive resilience factors contributed to their doctoral completion.

(Sandoval, 2016, p. 3)

The researcher developed the “Theoretical Foundations” section from the presentation used to de�ne her 10

Strategic Points and present them to her chair and methodologist. The slide in Figure 6.2 shows the various

models, describes them, and then identi�es that the three research questions were developed using

Richardson’s metatheory of resilience.

Figure 6.2

Theoretical Foundations Section Describing the Models for the Study and Their Use in Developing the Three Research
Questions for a Qualitative Study

Example: Quantitative

A similar approach was used to develop the “Background of the Problem” section for a quantitative study. The

title for this quantitative study was: “A Perception Study: Relationship of Teacher-Perceived Supervisor’s Level

of Emotional Intelligence and Special Education Teacher Job Satisfaction” (Perez, 2016). In this section, Perez

�rst discussed the current societal or social issue of an increasing demand for special education teachers,

while at the same time facing higher attrition rates than other subject area teachers:

From a societal perspective, the demand for Special Education teachers continues to rise and at the

same time the attrition rate continues to increase, creating a challenge for schools to �nd and retain

suf�cient numbers of Special Educations teachers. Special Education (SpEd) teachers are in high

demand all over the nation in response to an attrition rate higher than any other subject area teacher

(Adera & Bullock, 2010; Cancio, Albrecht & Johns, 2013). A broad area of study which may address this

societal need comes from the literature on Emotional Intelligence (EI) which suggests that higher

levels of EI produce positive individual results including higher levels of job satisfaction,

organizational commitment, and job performance. Looking speci�cally at an educational setting,

current literature has demonstrated EI and job satisfaction predict organizational commitment for

secondary teachers (Akomolafe & Olatomide, 2013). (p. 2)

The next paragraph explores recent studies from the broad area of research on the relationship of emotional

intelligence (EI) to employee satisfaction. This section discusses the relationship of EI to job satisfaction and

job performance.

Note: Adapted from Sandoval, 2016, slide 7.

Recent studies from this broad area of research have stated the need for further research between the

areas of emotional intelligence of leaders and its relationship to the job satisfaction of employees

including teachers. In a non-academic setting, Vidyarthi et al. (2014) found the EI of leaders

demonstrated a signi�cant, positive correlation with the job performance of their employees. However,

Vidyarthi et al. (2014) also stated that there is a need to continue research in this area and explore the

relationship between leader’s emotional perceptions and employee’s attitudes – speci�cally job

satisfaction. (Perez, 2016, p. 3)

The section next presents future research recommendations from current studies from the past three years. In

the �nal paragraph she identi�es the articles she synthesized and the focus for her proposed research, which

introduces the basis for her problem statement with the phrase “focus on determining if there is a relationship

between SpEd teachers’ perceptions of their immediate supervisors’ level of EI and those same SpEd teachers’

level of job satisfaction” (Perez, 2016, p. 3):

Looking at a population of teachers who worked with students who had emotional and behavioral

disabilities, Cancio et al. (2013) found that administrative support was signi�cantly correlated with

teacher job satisfaction. However, Cancio et al. (2013) utilized teachers within a professional

organization, which might have provided them with additional supports that skewed their results.

Cancio et al. (2013) recommended that future studies should look at the relationship between

administrator support and teacher job satisfaction outside of a professional support organization.

Therefore, the current study will bring together the recommendations of Vidyarthi et al. (2014) and

Cancio et al. (2013) and focus on determining if there is a relationship between SpEd teachers’

perceptions of their immediate supervisors’ level of EI and those same SpEd teachers’ level of job

satisfaction. (Perez, 2016, p. 3)

The researcher developed the historical background from the presentation used to de�ne the 10 Strategic

Points and present them to the chair and methodologist. The slide in Figure 6.3 shows the areas of societal

need in the �rst bullet, broad area of research in the next two bullets, and future recommendations in the last

two bullets.

Figure 6.3

Background of the Problem Section De�ning the Gap or Need For Future Research for a Quantitative Study

Perez (2016) used a similar approach as Sandoval (2016) to develop the “Theoretical Foundations” section for a

quantitative study. In this section, notice that the researcher identi�es two models, one for each of the two

variables, EI and job satisfaction, providing a single paragraph for each of these two models. She �rst describes

the EI model, identifying its developer and the relationship to the focus and problem statement for the study.

Finally, she describes how it will be used to construct the research question.

EI ability model. The EI ability model was selected for the area of Emotional Intelligence (EI). The EI

ability model states that EI is a separate intelligence and it can be measured as such (Mayer, Salovey,

Caruso & Sitarenios, 2001). The EI Ability Model it describes a type of intelligence that operates based

on the emotional content that is present and can be measured as a separate intelligence (Caruso,

Mayer & Salovey, 2002). As de�ned by seminal EI researchers Salovey and Mayer (1990), EI is “the

subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and

emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and

actions” (p. 189). The current study will extend literature on the EI ability model by focusing on the

perceived performance and demonstration of psychological attributes that have a direct link to

management of emotions. Both of the research questions will build upon EI literature and the Ability

Model through the analysis of a perceived overall EI ability score measured as an independent

construct – and its relationship to teacher job satisfaction. (Perez, 2016, p. 5)

The next paragraph then describes the second model, which is on job satisfaction, the second variable in her

study. She describes how the model evolved over time ending with the version used for this study comprising

three components of job satisfaction, indicating that an instrument exists to measure this variable.

Note. Adapted from Perez, 2016, slide 4.

Locke’s model of job satisfaction. Job satisfaction is a highly saturated area of research, as it has been

around for nearly a century and over this time has carried many different de�nitions and purposes.

Recognizing the need for a more consistent model of job satisfaction, Locke, Smith, Kendall, Hulin, and

Miller (1964) set out to rede�ne the construct and create a foundation for which it could be studied.

Locke (1968) stated job satisfaction is an emotional reaction, which contains three key elements: (1)

perception of the job, (2) implicit or explicit value standard, and (3) a judgment of the relationship

between the two. This value-based model of JS was one of the �rst to look at something other than

expectations or needs. Additionally, Locke et al. (1964) highlighted the importance of considering

what areas respondents could reasonably discriminate – and found that pay, promotion, and

supervision were three areas with the highest convergent and discriminant validity. The current

study will extend literature on Locke’s model of job satisfaction through the use of a job satisfaction

instrument that includes the 3 subareas identi�ed by Locke in order to measure the job satisfaction of

SpEd teachers. (Perez, 2016, p. 5–6)

The researcher developed her ‘Theoretical Foundations” section from the presentation used to de�ne her 10

Strategic Points and present them to her chair and methodologist. The slide in Figure 6.4 identi�es the two

variables for this quantitative study, for which theories or models will help frame the research questions and


Figure 6.4

Theoretical Foundations Section Identifying the Variables in a Quantitative Study for which Models are Required

Note. Adapted from Perez, 2016, slide 6

A second slide (Figure 6.5) presents the models that provide the theoretical foundation for each of the two

variables. Later in the presentation, the researcher identi�es the instruments that exist for each of these

models and that will be used to collect the data for the variables.


The purpose of this chapter was to discuss the identi�cation of a problem space that could lead to the creation

of a dissertation beginning with interest in a speci�c topic. The chapter discussed strategies of evaluation for

determining whether a topic of interest is enough to move beyond simple curiosity to form the basis of a

worthy research study. Once determined worthy of further investigation, the chapter presented strategies for

moving from a topic of interest to problem and purpose statements that identify the problem space in research

and form a solid foundation for a successful dissertation of signi�cant interest to those in the academic �eld of


Checks for Understanding
1. What is a problem space? Why is this problem space important to the doctoral process?

2. Where and how does one establish a problem space?

3. What is the difference between a topic of interest and a research study?

Figure 6.5

Theoretical Foundations Section Identifying the Model for Each of the Variables in a Quantitative Study

Note. Adapted from Perez, 2016, slide 10.


Berman, R., Maul, J., & Ames, C. (2016). How use of Zoom for coaching doctoral learners in�uences

psychological factors such as social presence, social isolation, motivation and research self-ef�cacy,

which are known to lead to increased retention. Unpublished manuscript, College of Doctoral Studies,

Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, Arizona.

Cai, J., Morris, A., Hohensee, C., Hwang, S., Robison, V., Cirillo, M., … & Hiebert, J. (2019). Theoretical framing as

justifying. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 50(3), 218–224.

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Maul, J. (2016). Various approaches to justifying the need for a research study. Unpublished manuscript.

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Perez, L. P. (2016). A perception study: Relationship of teacher-perceived supervisor’s level of emotional

intelligence and special education teacher job satisfaction [Unpublished doctoral research prospectus].

Used with permission.

Perez, L. P. (2016). A perception study: Relationship of teacher-perceived supervisor’s level of emotional

intelligence and special education teacher job satisfaction. [Unpublished doctoral research proposal

presentation]. Used with permission.

Sandoval, M. (2016). Perceived resilience and success of non-traditional doctoral level students: A case study.

[Unpublished doctoral research prospectus]. Used with permission.

Sandoval, M. (2016). Perceived resilience and success of non-traditional doctoral level students: A case study.

[Unpublished doctoral research proposal presentation]. Used with permission.


1. A problem space is the difference between what is known and what is not known about

a problem to justify the need to �nd these answers in doctoral-level research.

2. A problem space is found by identifying what is currently known about a problem and

what is not yet known.

3. A topic of interest is simple curiosity about a topic; a research study is based on the

foundation of a problem that requires in-depth analysis to search for answers

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