Where to Go if You Lose Track During Thesis Writing?

The feelings of frustration and loss of direction, for many reasons, are often and inevitable during  thesis writing. These distracted periods have dramatic consequences on our academic lives; firstly, it increases the duration of study. secondly, it results in financial , psychological and social difficulties.

In this article we will shed light on the research problem as our last resort, to break through the distracted periods during thesis writing.

 First Things First

“Once the general topic or problem has been identified, this should then be stated as a clear research problem, that is, taken from just a statement about a problematic situation to a clearly defined researchable problem that identifies the issues you are trying to address.

It is not always easy to formulate the research problem simply and clearly. In some areas of scientific research the investigator might spend years exploring, thinking, and researching before they are clear about what research questions they are seeking to answer. Many topics may prove too wide-ranging to provide a researchable problem. Choosing to study, for instance a social issue such as child poverty, does not in itself provide a researchable problem. The problem is too wide-ranging for one researcher to address. Time and resources would make this unfeasible and the results from such a study would consequently lack depth and focus.”  [1]

 “The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.”

– Albert Einstein

 Criteria for a Problem Formulation

 Is my idea novel?

If you have an idea for a research topic, you should check to see if anyone else has already researched the same topic before you embark on your own research. Google Scholar is a good resource to use for this purpose. Try to find the most specific words for your topic and enter them into the search field. For example if you are interested in researching the smoking habits of immigrants in Israel, you could enter smoking immigrants Israel in the search field and see if you discover any papers that resemble what you are thinking about researching. You would for example find the following paper:

Baron-Epel, Orna, et al. “Multiethnic differences in smoking in Israel. Pooled analysis from three national surveys.” The European Journal of Public Health 14.4 (2004): 384-389.

You could then consider if this article focuses on what you would like to research or if your topic is different from the research already done. If the research is similar to your proposed topic, you can also see which other researchers have based their research on this article by clicking on the “Cited by” link under the article. By looking at these articles you might be inspired to find a new topic or a new angle on the topic.

If you don’t find any articles that are very similar to your planned topic, then you probably have a novel idea. But the fact that your idea is novel doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good idea. There may be good reasons that nobody has studied the topic before, for example that the subject is irrelevant.

 Is my idea relevant?

Besides being novel, you must also have a clear feeling that your topic or your angle on your topic is relevant for anyone other than yourself as a student. Clarify this by using your explorative literature search to describe the specific problem – geographic, scope, extension – and to establish to yourself that your topic ties up with the nature of the problem, even if it is not measurable at this time. This work will hopefully bring you closer to a concrete description and argument of the aim of the thesis and why it is worth dealing with.

But is it feasible too?

 Is my question feasible?

Once you have an idea for your research topic that appears to be novel and relevant, you should then consider whether it is feasible. E.g. will you be able to perform the research and write your thesis before its deadline? Time is quite short to finish your thesis and if your thesis will be based on empirical research there can be a lot of different practical considerations to deal with. Therefore, think carefully about how long time it will take to collect and process data, e.g. from interviews; whether you have the needed contacts to realize it, whether your project is ethically justifiable and whether you have the necessary financial resources to cover the costs. The explorative literature search may give you an idea of the scope and nature of the work that you will be expected to do.


Identify some good narrow keywords for the problem you want to work with and check in Google Scholar what has been published on this subject. Select better keywords based on the result.

 Problem Formulation

“The problem formulation consists of just one sentence and should make it clear to everyone what research problem, you aim to address and to whom and where it is relevant. In other words, the problem formulation is the heart (or core) of your thesis to which you should always return if you lose track during your further research and writing process.”[2]

Listen to experts thought on problem formulation:

“The problem formulation is based on the rationale you reached through your explorative search and may be the first thing you write related to your thesis. The aim of a problem formulation is also to set a framework for your research and a good problem formulation is essential for completing a good study.

 Example of a problem formulation:

“Is the level of knowledge on recommended nutritional practices related to the nutritional status of pregnant women attending antenatal care in Northern Uganda?”

What is the problem addressed: Gap in evidence whether nutritional knowledge gained during antenatal care influences the nutritional status of pregnant women.

To whom and/or where is the problem relevant: Pregnant women attending antenatal care in Northern Uganda.

 The Process

It is an iterative process to write a problem formulation. You might switch many times between checking the literature to see if your idea is relevant and refining the problem formulation, back to searching the literature with new ideas, etc. It takes a long time to develop a precise and specific problem formulation but as Albert Einstein wrote it is necessary to define your problem before any work can be launched.

In practise, writing of the final thesis is done in interaction with your supervisor. This process is described in the lesson: “Meeting the supervisor”.

When your problem formulation has taken its final form, you are ready to develop an overall research objective and a number of specific objectives stating exactly what actions will be taken in order to address your stated problem.” [2]

A proper problem formulation and associated objectives will make thesis writing more coherent and simple.


  1. http://www.soas.ac.uk/cedep-demos/000_P506_RM_3736-Demo/unit1/page_20.htm
  2. http://betterthesis.dk/getting-started/explorative-search/criteria-for-a-problem-formulation
  3. http://betterthesis.dk/getting-started/type-of-study

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