I have often read articles describing graduate education talk of "unstructured research problems". What exactly does an "unstructured research problem" mean?

Some context: All that I've read is in the context of computer science and electrical engineering. And I recently graduated with a undergraduate EE degree.

  • Example, please? Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 17:34
  • Well they don't mention the exact term I use but here are a few examples which refer to unstructured work: one, two. Others mention graduate school as being very unstructured; I think I understand that better.
    – Slothworks
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 13:30

2 Answers 2


An unstructured problem is one that does not have a direct solution already established: that is, it's not immediately obvious how one gets from the problem statement to a working solution, or even if there is a solution.

This is the standard for most doctoral-level research problems in STEM fields: if the problem is so well-defined that the strategy for solving it is immediately obvious, it is likely unsuitable for doctoral work, and a new (usually more challenging) problem should be selected.

  • 1
    A concise definition indeed, Dr. (+1); your answer differentiates between unstructured research problems and structured problems. May I know what might be a structured research problem? Could you provide some examples?
    – Ébe Isaac
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 9:33

Thanks for the examples. I think I understand what you are asking now.

I have often read articles describing graduate education talk of "unstructured research problems". What exactly does an "unstructured research problem" mean?

In much of one's undergraduate work, one is assigned problems where the person doing the assigning has at least one solution, and solution method, in mind. The assigner has structured your work for you. Also, the assigner has given you a due date!

But the thesis is the thing that will prepare you to be an independent researcher, finding problems of interest to others, solving them, and presenting the solution in a compelling way.

Although there are exceptions to this, for a PhD, no one is going to hand you your assignment and say, solve this, and hand it in to me in three months. Your advisor might say, read this paper, tell me what you think; then you might say, the authors suggested applying their technique to such-and-so other problems, and I'm curious to see if that would give useful results; and the advisor says, a collaborator of mine actually tried that once, and didn't get anywhere, but I've been thinking about the experimental set-up he used, could you take a look at it and see if you can come up with a way to.... And then you're off and running. Only you don't know whether the improvements that you spend three months designing and building are actually going to get you anywhere.

  • 1
    Having spent some time now doing some work of this kind I understand now what you meant! Thanks for your answer!
    – Slothworks
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 14:10

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