I have conducted a study with a rare type of participants for my graduate thesis and would just like to present their characteristics in a descriptive manner.

In my opinion, just presenting the characteristics of these participants might also have its value because the type of participants have not yet been studied so far. By the way, I do not have any comparison group nor specific hypothesis.

However, my supervisor thinks that there should still be certain assumptions or aim of my study that I should answer.

Is just presenting the characteristics of the rare population a defective aim of a graduate thesis in general? Or is there any way where I can still write a high-quality master's thesis in a descriptive manner without traditional hypothesis?

It would be rather a wide question. I would appreciate if somebody could suggest a rough example or orientation.

  • 1
    Much too vague for an answer here. You and your advisor disagree and they have much more experience than you do. What's suitable for a Master's Thesis might not be for a "meaningful paper". Voting to close. Commented Jun 23 at 22:04
  • @EthanBolker I agree it's vague, but I think "meaningful paper" is a language issue here; not a request for an answer that's suitable for both a journal article and a master's thesis. Commented Jun 24 at 12:22

2 Answers 2


I'm going to say that there is an answer here. What you're describing, in my field at least, would not fly for a thesis, let alone a published paper in most cases. It sounds like your advisor would agree with me. So there is your answer.

What separates a master's thesis and a dissertation, at their core, is that a master's thesis doesn't necessarily have to be novel. A PhD dissertation is meant to advance the field, a master's thesis is meant to show that you understand the field. Even if they are totally novel, they are almost always much smaller in scope. This means that things like literature reviews, quality improvement projects, or replication experiments are usually acceptable at the masters level.

I'm mentioning the differences to highlight the similarities. A master's thesis should still have a hypothesis (ideally a testable one). Whether you support it with a bibliographic work, experiments, simulations, whatever, a hypothesis is central to the process. A thesis that simply describes a population would not meet that requirement. On top of that, what do you learn? The point of a research based master's is to learn how to do research. If you are submitting a descriptive work (I hesitate to even call it a descriptive study) you learn nothing.

Now I'm sure that some program somewhere would accept it (maybe even your program), but you would be short changing yourself. So while you could maybe make it work, why not just engage with the process and actually write a thesis? It sounds like you may have something interesting which is rare at the master's level. So run with it and do as much as you can, not as little.

  • I'm not sure OP is saying that their project is only descriptive statistics. Commented Jun 24 at 12:23
  • Based on their question, that is exactly what they are saying - they collected data about a population which is apparently interesting and novel and now want to go ahead with only a description of that population without any meaningful investigation or hypothesis. The issue is not that they want to do a descriptive or observational study, but that they seem to have no study right now.
    – sErISaNo
    Commented Jun 25 at 2:18
  • What OP described is called a Cohort Profile paper in my field and it is published very often (for example). However, only his supervisor can tell if this is enough for a thesis or not.
    – The Doctor
    Commented Jun 27 at 14:05

On a purely practical level, you are going to have to please your supervisor (and your committee) to get your degree. Also, this issue should have been resolved early in the process. Different universities (and different departments) have different ways of doing this, but there is often something like 1) Proposal - what are you going to do? 2) Progress report - How's it going? and 3) Dissertation - How it turned out. Issues such as yours should be settled at stage 1.

That said, whether a purely descriptive paper is "enough" for a journal article (which ought to be enough for a dissertation) varies by field and by particular topic within a field. I have seen purely descriptive papers in reputable journals. Heck, there are case studies in many journals; there are also ethnographic studies, reports of focus groups, and so on. However, these usually have a lot of "other" stuff that an inferential paper does not have. More details, more background, and so on. You can search the literature in your field for descriptive papers.

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