7 Subjects of Academic Terminology

By Mark Nichol

Go to the head of the class by observing these rules, recommendations, and conventions about scholastic terminology:

1. Courses

Specific course names are capitalized but not enclosed in quotation marks: “Every section of Introduction to Psychology is closed.” A numbered course, even a conjectural one, is also capitalized: “The senator obviously failed Economics 101 [or “Econ 101”].” Generic references, however, should be lowercased: “She was late to her engineering class.”

2. Degrees

A reference to an academic degree is best spelled out, and should be lowercased:

“She earned a bachelor’s degree in English.”

“A master’s degree usually requires completion of a master’s thesis.”

“All earned their doctoral degrees [or “doctorates”] at prestigious universities.”

This form simplifies matters, because use of initials is complicated by a couple of factors: First, not all universities style degrees with the abbreviations BA, MA, or PhD; some reverse the letter order in the first two cases. (PhD, for “doctor of philosophy,” is already reversed, so it’s inconsistent, but let’s just let that long-standing convention go.)

Furthermore, distinct abbreviations exist for a bachelor’s degree in divinity (BD), fine arts (BFA), music (BM), and science (BS). The same holds true for some master’s degrees. For simplicity, use the generic phrase “bachelor’s degree” or “master’s degree.

Also, people are divided on whether to include periods after each initial; if you must use abbreviations, omitting periods is the simplest solution (especially if you use plural forms).

Note that unless the name of the major is a proper noun, such as the name of a language, it should be lowercased: “Every applicant has a master’s degree in business administration.” (Anyone who has attained this degree may also be referred to as a master of business administration, but that unusual usage seems pretentious.)

3. Divisions

The lowercase form of an academic discipline is distinct from that employed for a specific reference to an academic department, such as “She has taught in the Department of Business Administration [or “the Business Administration Department”] for seventeen years.” But initial caps are not called for if the reference is casual, as in “She has taught business administration for seventeen years.”

Names of schools or colleges within a university are capitalized: “the School of Business,” “the College of Fine Arts.”

4. Grades

Letter grades should not be emphasized with quotation marks or with italics (unless distinguishing them as terms, as here). The forms for various usages follow: A, B+, Cs, D-plus, F-minuses. (Some publications use an en dash for a minus sign.) Although the plural form of the optimum letter grade could conceivably be misconstrued as the word as, be consistent in omitting apostrophes as well.

5. Honors

When a person is generically referred to as having received an academic fellowship, lowercase fellow; when the fellowship is specifically named, capitalize the word: “For you to qualify to be a Stegner Fellow, we do not require any degrees or tests for admission.” Other specific references should be capitalized, as in “He is a former National Merit Scholarship Merit Scholar.”

“Cum laude,” “magna cum laude,” and “summa cum laude” are lowercased and need not be italicized, because they are Latin terms widely adopted into English. Honors and superlative forms are not capitalized, either.

6. Levels

Class levels are always lowercased: freshman, sophomore, and so on, as well as in phrases like “postgraduate studies,” “postdoctorate research,” and “premedical [or “premed”] studies.”

Numbered class-level grades can be spelled out or rendered in numeral form according to a publication’s style, but it’s best to be consistent. For example, if your publication adheres to The Associated Press Stylebook, instead of spelling out grades up to nine and then using numbers for ten and above, use numerals for “1st grade” through “12th grade.”

Hyphenate “fourth grade” and the like only when the term modifies a noun: “fourth-grade student.” No hyphen is necessary for “fourth graders” and similar constructions, either.

Indicate grade ranges, as any number range, by linking the low and high numbers with an en dash, not a hyphen (unless en dash style for a Web site is a hyphen, as here). Variations from “students in grades 6-8” are “students in sixth through eighth grades” and, less gracefully, “sixth- to eighth-grade students.” Some publications spell out isolated grades but use numbers in ranges.

For schools with prekindergartners and/or kindergartners, the number-range style is “P-5” or “PK-5” (and, occasionally and clumsily, “preK-5”), or “K-5. When spelling early grades out, do not capitalize kindergarten or prekindergarten; also, it’s kindergartner, not kindergartener.

7. Titles

A first reference to an academician should capitalize the title before the person’s name: “Associate Professor Jane Doe is teaching the course next semester.” But subsequent references to the person need not repeat her job title: “Doe taught it last year, but it was not offered in the fall.”

As with any other job title, an academic title is usually lowercased in isolation (“The professor looked askance at the late arrival.”) or in apposition (“Jane Doe, associate professor of business administration, is teaching the course next semester.”) The exceptions are for what are called named, or endowed, professorships or chairs: “She was named the John Doe Professor of Life Sciences”; “He is Mary Smith Chair of Social Sciences at Jones University.”

It is widely considered bad form to use the abbreviation Dr. to identify someone who has earned a doctorate; this title is best reserved for medical doctors.

Note that the general preference for minimization of capitalization can be relaxed in special circumstances such as lists or other display text, such as a roster of honorees or a caption below a photograph.

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16 Responses to “7 Subjects of Academic Terminology”

  • Dale A. Wood

    When it comes to bachelor’s degrees, mine is a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degree, a B.E.E. At other schools, they award a B.S.E.E. degree. These two degrees cover exactly the same material and they are completely interchangeable. The same applies for the degrees B.M.E. and M.S.M.E.; and B.Ch.E. and B.S.Ch.E.; and so forth.

    Some schools still offer a bachelor of engineering degree. The point of this one is that it is supposed to cover a mixture of civil, electrical, mechanical, chemical, and aeronautical engineering. However, this degree is rarely offered anymore because there is too much to study in each of its components. Most graduates with a bachelor of engineering degree do not know enough in any given field to do much of anything.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To say that the title “Dr.” should only be used by medical doctors is insane! What evil spirit came upon you to state that?

    You have omitted doctors of osteopathy, dentists, optometrists, veterinarians, psychology (practictioners with their Ph.D.s), to begin with.
    I recognize that you deliberately omitted those who have earned their doctorates in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, sociololgy, politiical science, law, engineering, computer science, education, etc.

    Furthermore, I have read that in such countries as the U.K., surgeons prefer to be referred to as Mr., Mrs., or Ms., yielding ther title of doctor to physicians. I do not know what is the title for dentists.

    Personally, I have a father who has his doctorate in education and a sister – who has never married – who is an M.D. Everyone refers to both of them as Dr. Wood. This can be a little confusing, especially when our father is a patient in the same hospital where my sister practices. Our father tends to be treated as a VIP since the people on the staff assume that Dad is an M.D., too.

    With so many doctors in the family, at least I am the only one who has two master’s degrees.

    In Spanish-speaking countries, they have the title of “Dra.” for M.D.s, dentists, etc., who happen to be women. With this conventions, in my family we would have Dr. Wood and Dra. Wood. This is also very convenient for two doctors who are married to each other – which is something that is not two extremely uncommon. I know of two American dentists who are married to each other, for example. There are also cases of doctors and dentists who are brother and sister, including ones in which the woman continues to use her maiden name in her professional practice.

  • Badknee

    Just ran across this page this morning. I’m late to the discussion, but wanted to add something.

    Just about every time I go to a “physician”, whether they be an MD (Medical Doctor) or a DO (Doctor of Osteopathic) or a DC (Doctor of Chiropractic) or a DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery), (don’t go around DVM’s much – no pet)… they nearly always refer to me as “Doctor”, even though I have a PhD and not a medical degree. They quite often introduce me to someone else – attending physician or nurse or PA or NP or whoever – as “Doctor”. They don’t seem to be hung up on degrees.

    I understand that “some” medical personnel are quite protective of the term “doctor”, but most of them that I interact with either call me “Doctor” or by my first name (or initials – see below) after we get to know each other better. BTW, I do the same thing with some of them and have never been corrected.

    When I get new students, especially freshman, I introduce myself – usually as my initials – but then I say that I have a PhD. I ask them what that means. They say that it means that I’m smarter than they are. I reply, “No, it just means that I started school before they did.” That normally gets a laugh… but it’s true. 🙂

  • venqax

    Use the person’s first and last name, as you would for lesser human beings. But the question is, would you refer to a physician the same way as the lesser humans? It wouldn’t get you far in a hospital. Either you use titles, or you don’t use titles. It would be Mr. Einstein for a physicist, but Dr. Eintstein if he were the local vet?

    @Marcus: You raise a good point. While different types of bacc’ degrees don’t cross my radar screen personally, I do get somewhat annoyed when writers make vague referrences to things like “senior military officers” or “high ranking officials”. Military officers have actual RANKS. Those are informative. Likewise, who knows what a “high ranking” official might be? If someone is a major general, or a colonel, or an assistant secretary etc, say so. This is especially irritating because writers tend to be so inaccurate about the terms. An army captain is not a “senior” officer. Any HQ staffer is not “high ranking”. Such lazy writing can be extremely misleading and that is the kind of thing good writing should avoid.

  • Marcus

    You should not always use the generic term for a degree.

    For one example, most universities have a distinction between a BFA( bachelor’s of fine arts) and BA (bachelor’s of arts). As a reader, I find it very relevant and interesting to know which of the two degrees the subject received. I would feel cheated if I was told someone received a bachelor’s degree when I could have been told they received a bachelor’s of fine arts. While the former statement is not incorrect, the latter provides more specific information that I want to know.

  • Mark Nichol


    Use the person’s first and last name, as you would for lesser human beings.

  • venqax

    Mark Nichol. Well, I agree it would be more egalitarian not to focus on what “honorific” a person has, but what does that have to do with anything? Yes, it would be more egalitarian not to recognize any kind of achievement or to give everyone a Participant or Showed Up award instead of a winner’s medal or trophy. Why would being egalitarian be a good thing when it involves something like this? Why shouldn’t someone who has earned a title use it? Is being eqalitarian somehow being equated with a “good” practice, simply by definition? I don’t understand the value of that point.

    I also agree, BTW, that advanced degrees of all sorts have lost a lot of their perceived and actual value. As a result, I know some academics who prefer the title Professor to Doctor precisely because doctorates of various sorts are so common nowdays, whereas the designation of “professor” at least implies that one has an actual academic appointment at an institution of higher education– something that is becoming harder, not easier, to achieve in the US.

  • Ellen Klein

    You wrote: “It is widely considered bad form to use the abbreviation Dr. to identify someone who has earned a doctorate.”

    What’s the alternative if you need to refer to a person with a doctorate, for example, in an e-mail to colleagues at a company?


  • Dr. Charles C. Fuller

    A bit of clarification… I certainly did not mean to slight other holders of this title.

    If I do have a little quibble about use of the abbreviated title, it is that I think it is wrong to write Nine Out of Ten Drs. Agree…

  • Mark Nichol

    I didn’t mean to ruffle any feathers about my comments on the use of the title doctor by those who have earned doctorates. Perhaps it would have been better to say this: The honorific Dr. before a name does not have the value it once had, when medical doctors and PhD earners alike were a relatively rare and rarefied breed. Now, you can’t walk down the street without bumping into an MD — or, more likely, a PhD.

    That may be why many publications, rather than referring to Dr. Mary Smith, will write “Mary Smith, a neurosurgeon at Mercy Hospital,” or “John Doe, who earned a doctorate in psychology at Bigname University.” Its the specialty, not the title, that counts. On second reference, the title is irrelevant, and the person is identified simply as Smith or Doe.

    There’s much discussion online about whether those who have earned doctorates deserve to be addressed, for example, as “Dr. Jones” — and anyone who does a little research, as I did, must agree that it is obviously a sore point, so I understand that PhDs may be sensitive about the issue. That said, it is more egalitarian to focus on what the person does, not what honorific the person has earned.

  • Craig W.

    I also think you’re wrong when you write: “It is widely considered bad form to use the abbreviation Dr. to identify someone who has earned a doctorate….” Where would the humor come from if a proud parent could not say that a son or daughter is a doctor, “but not the kind that helps people?”

    Also, what about people with an OD, or DVM, or DDS? Are they not considered to be doctors? Or do you stretch the meaning of “medical?”

  • venqax

    I have to sound in with those above. As an academician myself, at an assortment of colleges and universities, I was never under the impression that it was in any way inappropriate to use the title Doctor or Dr, spoken or written, or that somehow physicians, dentists and chiropractors had any kind of propriety over it. Why would they?

    In fact, quite the opposite, as all academic publications are very careful about denoting who has terminal degrees and who does not. At every professional occasion I’ve ever attended, academic or otherwise, university faculty members are introduced as either Doctor or Professor Squiggman. Where do you get this idea?

  • Stephanie

    Thanks for this! Very useful.

  • Amber Polo

    Where did the phrase “graduate college” or “graduate high school” come from. It always sounds incorrect to me.

    The PhD is a higher degree than an MD, so it’s unfortunate they have the same honorific.

  • Sharon Maroney

    I was surprised and interested in your statement, “It is widely considered bad form to use the abbreviation Dr. to identify someone who has earned a doctorate; this title is best reserved for medical doctors.” I have been a university professor for over 25 years, and have never thought or heard that it may not be accepted to use my title outside the university or academic setting. Can you give me some additional info on this or a link? Thanks.

  • Dr. Charles C. Fuller

    I do not agree about not using the title “Dr.” if you are not a medical doctor. I think this is often the result of snootiness on the part of RDs (“real” doctors). I do not like to be called “Mr.” so my choices are the title I prefer, or, very often, nothing at all. One setting in which I try NEVER to use my title is in a hospital, clinic, and so on. Things get confusing, if I forget.

    Actually, my first choice is “Doc,” as in “What’s up, Doc?” Works for me.

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