We finish the year with a two-part post from Cecile Badenhorst who is a Professor in the Adult Education/Post-Secondary program in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University, Canada. Her research interests are post-secondary, higher education and adult learning experiences, particularly graduate research writing, academic literacies and qualitative research methodologies. She explains her approach to teaching postgraduates about research conceptualization and how this can be woven into the writing.

Research conceptualization is the process of transforming ideas into an operationalizable research project. This involves delimiting the research, identifying and developing core concepts and establishing a research design and agenda. Research conceptualization is often not viewed as a central part of the writing process and yet without a coherent framing of their research project, countless students find themselves stuck in their writing.  It’s important to realise that research conceptualization is usually part of the messy pre-writing thinking, conducted before writing happens, but explaining and justifying it is also very much part of the written documents students are expected to produce.

At the start of a research project, students are involved in the complex task of decision-making around delineating the research project.  Research is usually activated in response to a problem and these puzzles, challenges and dilemmas create the need and rationale for doing the research.  For many research students, constructing and communicating the research problem presents an immense hurdle and is often the most difficult part of the process (Ellis & Levy, 2008).  It is challenging for several reasons. 

  • First, problems are not simple.  They are always part of complex systems with component parts and multidimensional interactions (Luse, Mennecke, & Townsend, 2012). 
  • Second, research problems are constructed.  Researchers always begin defining their projects in media res, in the middle of things.  Students take the chaotic real-world and begin to eliminate and define the essence of their project.  They have to make decisions about beginnings and endings, borders and parameters.  Research problems are “artificial entities that come together only through the intense efforts of the researcher, who has identified a gap in information or understanding within a topic” (Jacobs, 2013, 104).  
  • Third, research problems often represent a complex system of arguments that are logically valid and coherently interwoven. These statements are usually succinct summaries of the research project and often “systematically link different discursive components of a study” to create a cohesion in the document (Lim et al. 2015, p. 70). 

Working out the research problem is a key component of research conceptualization because for scholarly texts to be believable, they “must speak to matters that others agree have importance and urgency” (Paré, 2018, p. 227).  Weaving a research problem into a research design is the basis of research conceptualization and this requires reading the substantive literature in a field as well as reading about research methodology. 

When it comes to writing, research conceptualization appears in a sub-system of connected, interrelated and writing genres:  problem statements, research proposals and Introductions to research articles or dissertations.

  • Problem statements are short succinct pieces of writing where the research problem is articulated and often contains a summary of the key components of a study, showing how all are connected together.  Problem Statements are sometimes associated with logical positivistic perspectives of inquiry but can be used widely and, regardless of researcher’s perspective, they usually play an important role in communicating the conceptualization of research.  Problem Statements address the “why” of research, establish the parameters of what can be done, delimit possible goals and serve as the basis for the interrelatedness of the distinct elements in a meaningful research project.  Constructing a Problem Statement is a demanding activity that needs a range of multifaceted analytical skills. 
  • Research proposals are often an expansion of the Problem Statement. They outline the conceptualization of the proposed project at the beginning of a research project and often play a gatekeeping role where proposal assessors determine whether the student can advance into the next stage.
  • Introductions are sections containing the framing and positioning of the research in the paper or dissertation.

A review of the research literature on Problem Statements, Proposals and Introductions indicates the fluid nature of these genres. As with many other writing genres, components of these genres sink into invisibility through habitual use. What this means is that these genres are often hidden and out of sight to newcomers but available to old-timers who have long immersion in the discourse.  Research indicates that for many newcomers the requirements of these genres are often implicit and the criteria unarticulated, particularly as they relate to situated and specific contexts.  Students may be able to find clues from examining other proposals if available, but even so, the difficulty of matching a text to the expectations of a targeted audience remains a challenge. On top of this, these genres are often unstable – they shift and change – which makes it difficult for students to know how to reproduce the genre (Badenhorst, 2021). Given the complexity, difficulty and tacit nature of research conceptualization and Problem Statements, it is not surprising that research students find this stage difficult. How do we help students navigate this part of the research process?

In Part 2, we discuss a technique – the Problem/Purpose Statement and Questions (PPS&Q) to help students develop problem statements that are flexible and mobile enough to accommodate change over the research journey.


Badenhorst, C.M. (2021). Research conceptualization in doctoral and masters research writing. Writing & Pedagogy, 12 (2-3), 423-444. https://doi.org/10.1558/wap.19542

Ellis, T. J., & Levy, Y. (2008). Framework of problem-based research: A guide for novice researchers on the development of a research-worthy problem. Informing Science: International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, (11), 17-33. https://doi.org/10.28945/3288

Jacobs, R.L. (2013). Developing a dissertation research problem: A guide for doctoral students in human resource development and adult education. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development 25(3), 03-117. https://doi.org/10.1002/nha3.20034

Lim, J. M-H., Loi, C-K., Hashim, A. & Liu, M. S-M. (2015). Purpose statements in experimental doctoral dissertations submitted to U.S. universities: An inquiry into doctoral students’ communicative resources in language education. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, (20), 69-89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2015.06.002

Luse, A., Mennecke, B., & Townsend, A. (2012). Selecting a research topic: A framework for doctoral students, International Journal of Doctoral Studies (7), 143-152. https://doi.org/10.28945/1572

Paré, A. (2018). Thinking rhetorically: A pragmatic approach to texts. In S. Carter and D. Laurs (Eds.), Developing research writing (pp.224-231), Routledge.