Clearly defining and justifying your research problem.

Defining your research problem is the single most important, and at the same time the hardest part of your research. It is my experience that most students (and their supervisors) spend too little time on defining what they really want to do and why. This results not only in unmotivated students and supervisors, but also in highly unfocused reports where there is little relation between the different chapters. And even worse, you might end up spending half a year or a year of your life doing research that no one really cares about!

I have no clear-cut advise on this topic. Defining a research problem is a dialog and needs to be done continuously in the course of your research (but a justification should preferably be there from the beginning!). Some guidelines that I find useful for myself:

  1. Be as critical as you can be! Always ask the question: What would happen to the world if I stopped doing this research right now? If no-one would care, then you should stop your research. But normally there is someone who cares, e.g. your supervisor. If it is only your supervisor who cares, then go ahead and challenge your supervisor (ask him/her why only he/she cares and no one else).
  2. Find and know your beneficiaries! Often it is not true that no one cares about your research (thanks God). No matter how obscure your invention is, someone could think of paying for it. Know who that someone is even if your research is not obscure.
  3. Have a serious talk with your beneficiaries! Imaging you were a door seller, trying to sell the end product of your own research to your beneficiaries by knocking on their door at dinner time. How would the conversation between you and this hungry, disturbed, annoyed beneficiary be? While the only thing he/she is thinking about is to go back to his dinner? Remember that there is a big difference between you and a real door seller: you are not approaching an arbitrary person, you are approaching your beneficiary! So don’t be shy!
  4. Look into research done by other researchers (ask your supervisor!). Often you are not the only one who wants to solve exactly this problem. The world is full of researchers. If no one has looked into the same or similar problems as you want to look into, then you should ask yourself why.
  5. And of course, the best way to define a problem is to ask the people with the problem to define it for your. This is what we call user-centered design or co-design. Again, ask your supervisor whether it is feasible to do your research using such a method. Both you and your supervisor will be happy with the results.

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