Define a Research Problem

Once you are done with your literature review task, you could have developed some sense for your research problem/topic. Before straight away going to research problem selection, we need to understand few other important features of a good research problem.

  1. Scope of research problem

It is always preferable to define the scope of your research. The scope actually defines the boundaries of your research activities, and it will impact your research career later on. Ideally, a PhD scholar should think of a longer path of his research spanning at least 5-10 years. Because, your consistent work in certain area of research will reveal some solid outcomes, and will make you a real expert. However, this trend may not work in Pakistan due to several factors. The scope of research varies from the level of research i.e. from undergraduate to post doctorate.



Figure 1: Level of research at various career stages


The scope of research has been best defined by Prof. Uri Alon in his master piece “How To Choose a Good Scientific Problem”, where he has broadly defined the research problems between the axis of feasibility and interest as shown in Figure 2 (adopted as such from his work). Do visit his webpage


Figure 2: The Feasibility-Interest Diagram for Choosing a Project (Alon, 2009)


Prof. Alon describes research problems in terms of feasibility (easy or difficult) and Interest (small or large gain in knowledge). According to him, undergraduate should work on such research problems which are easy to work on (probably because undergraduates have to learn the basic research skills and they have to develop a love for doing research). He suggests a gradual increase in the level of feasibility and gain in knowledge over time. The early part of research (up to postdoc) should focus of easy research problems because you have limited time and your research must conclude within that specified time. You can work on hard research questions as a part of your long term research career aspiration. This is indeed a beautiful selection criterion for young scientists.  Besides this wonderful advice from Prof. Alon, I have noticed that most of the researchers in Pakistan do not define their research problem wisely both in terms of feasibility and interest. I have noticed several redundant research topics offered/carried out by supervisors and research scholars.  For example, a PhD scholar, who is working on water quality monitoring on surface water or drinking water, has carried similar studies by just varying the source of water. Such research practices lead to only trivial knowledge contribution, and soon become unimportant.


  1. Novelty

Novelty is another important feature of any good research problem. It has become quite obvious that only novel research ideas get due attention in the field. However, novelty is a critical aspect that requires reasonably good literature review. I have noticed that most of the manuscripts straight away get rejected from editorial office of good journals on the basis of lack of novelty. Even there are few journals which ask for “Statement of Novelty” when you submit your manuscript. Thus, if we integrate the concept of novelty at the stage of selecting a research topic, it will make our journey quite easy. In order to inculcate novelty, scholars need to see their research problem in a bigger space, and try to include maximum possible aspects of that problem. To my understanding, the novelty can exist either in the problem itself, methodology (experimental design or analytical techniques) or solution (treatment) or their combinations. For example, adsorption is one of the most common research areas in wastewater treatment where any pollutant (problem) is removed from wastewater by any adsorbent (material). Recently, thousands of research papers have been published in this area and later the rejection rate of submitted manuscripts also increased proportionally. Later some editorials appeared which advised the future authors to submit novel research on the adsorption topic (Chem. Eng. J., 139 (2008) 1; Sep. Puri. Technol. 54 (2007) 277–278). The concept of novelty can be framed in a better way:

  • The problem

Using the example of adsorption, I want to explain that how the concept of novelty may appear in the research problem. Initially, most of the researchers were investigating the adsorptions of either heavy metals or dyes. Different researchers investigated various heavy metals and dyes but as single pollutant. However, most of the people think that either heavy metals or dyes can’t exist in wastewater in isolation. Now, the researchers are investigating the co-adsorption of heavy metals or dyes. Even tannery wastewater has become a novel research problem where chromium and dyes co-exist.

  • Methodology

There are lot more adsorbents which have been vastly explored for their adsorption capacity. The researchers have used biosorbents, activated carbon materials, polymers and many more. So, any new material (nanotubes, nano particles, biopolymers, waste byproducts etc) with great adsorption capacity could be a novelty to the topic. Furthermore, adsorption is a process which is governed by several experimental factors such as time, pH, temperature, adsorbent dose, concentration of pollutant etc). Thus, the application of proper experimental design (screening design and/or response surface methodology for optimization) can also make the topic novel.

  • Solution

The strategy or treatment employed to solve a research problem also adds value to the novelty of research. In traditional adsorption experiments, batch experiments were investigated which may have limited application. Now, researchers are focusing on column studies in order to investigate the large scale application of adsorption processes. Thus, the proposed solution to any research problem can also make it novel.

  1. Innovation

Partly, I have covered it under the topic of novelty. However, innovation should be a long term research goal. If we carefully review the commercialized technologies in the past, we can easily conclude that most of the innovations are inter-disciplinary efforts. The fields of Biomedical Engineering, Computational Biology, Biomechanics, Biochemical Engineering, Brain Engineering, Robotics etc. are the true examples of  inter disciplinary. So, as an advice I suggest to PhD scholars to discuss your research topic with non-specialists (people from other fields). If you are working on a biological process, a mathematician may help you to model your process or a statistician may guide to a better experimental design. I foresee several new biomaterials and tools being invented in near future due to expanding inter-disciplinary discussion. An inter-disciplinary team of University of Illinois has recently developed Camouflage sheet inspired by octopus ( and similarly, one could be interested to decode the animals capabilities of diagnosing diseases for our better future ( ).


Reference and Further Readings




Published by

Dr. M. Saif Ur Rehman

Dr. Muhammad Saif Ur Rehman is currently working as an Assistant Professor-Chemical Engineering at COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Lahore. I am a graduate Chemical Engineer from Punjab University. I further hold M. Sc Applied Environmental Science (PU), MS in Quality in Analytical Labs (Portugal/Norway), PhD in Environmental Engineering (Biofuel Technology) from Korea Advanced Institute for Science & Technology, South Korea. I am an Erasmus Mundus Scholar, and KAIST-ABC Scholar. I have been awarded with Green Talent Award 2014 by Federal Ministry for Education & Research Germany based on my research contribution in the areas of sustainable development and environmental conservation. I have been awarded with Award of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Environmental Management 2017 in the category of Best Research. I have published 37 papers in impact factor journals, and my accumulative IF = 136.365 with h-index =15. I won won HEC NRPU Research project on microalgal-advanced oxidation process for textile wastewater treatment worth Rs. 20 million. I have been certified in Scientific Research Writing and Communication from Elsevier Publishing Campus, Springer Author Academy, AthorAID, and Research Academy of Leipzig, Germany. I worked as a Visiting Scientist at Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, Germany. I completed my Postdoctoral Fellowship at Biorefinery Engineering Group, Institute of Process Engineering, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing under Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) President International Fellowship Initiative 2016-2018. Currently, I am working at Biochemical Engineering Research Center, School of Chemistry & Chemical Engineering, Anhui University of Technology, Ma’anShan, China. My google profile can be visited at For scientific writing, presentation, research skills and career development, please visit

2 thoughts on “Define a Research Problem”

  1. Dr. Sb,
    Its really viable and worth reading. We hope you would continue to enlighten us with more research oriented articles.


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