Masters Degree or Master’s Degree?

By Maeve Maddox - 2 minute read

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Edwin Johnstone wrote:

What is the proper way to spell masters degree ?
or is it master’s degree?
or Masters degree?
or Master’s degree?

To answer this question, I’ve consulted the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and some university dissertation guidelines.

Speaking generically, you would write master’s degree:

Jack has finally earned his master’s degree.

Speaking of a specific degree, you would capitalize Master:

He holds a Master of Fine Arts from State University.

When it comes to abbreviating academic degrees, you’d better check the style book that governs your work.

For example, here is what the guidelines say on the site of Ohio University:

Use periods when abbreviating academic degrees.
Ex. Dr. Bond received her A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. –Ohio University

Northeastern University, like the MLA guide, prefers to drop the periods:

Punctuating degrees: Do not include periods in degree abbreviations. [Ex. BS, BA, MA, PhD] The single exception is Hon. for Honorary. –Northeastern University

NOTE: Not all universities use the same abbreviations for the master’s degree (from Wikipedia):

Harvard University and the University of Chicago for instance, use A.M. and S.M. for their master’s degrees and MIT uses S.M. for its master of science degrees. Master of Science is often abbreviated MS or M.S. in the United States, and MSc or M.Sc. in ; Commonwealth nations and Europe.

Master’s Degree on Newspapers

The Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago have teamed up to offer a master’s degree program for the next generation of community leaders. — LA Times

Earning an advanced degree is part of many people’s plans for their education and career. But “front-loading” your education and pursuing a master’s degree immediately after completing your bachelor’s degree isn’t always the best path. – USA Today

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30 Responses to “Masters Degree or Master’s Degree?”

  • Speakbindas

    You should do Ph D on this subject, or may be Ph.D or may be Ph.D. 😀

    nice brain-storming.

  • Kaye Dacus

    The Chicago Manual of Style (used by most U.S. publishing houses for fiction an nonfiction) says:

    15.21: “In conservative practice, periods are added to abbreviations of all academic degrees (B.A., D.D.S., etc.). Chicago now recommends omitting them unless they are required for tradition or consistency. In the following list*, periods are shown only where uncertainty might arise as to their placement.”

    *In the comprehensive list they give, the few listed where periods might be needed to avoid confusion are:
    DMin (D.Min.)
    LittD (Litt.D. — Litterarum Doctor or Doctor of Letters)
    LLB (LL.B.–Legum Baccalaureus–Bachelor of Laws)
    LLD (LL.D. –Legum Doctor–Doctor of Laws)
    PhB (Ph.B. –Philosophiae Baccalaureus–Bachelor of Philosophy)
    PhD (Ph.D.)
    PhG (Ph.G. –Graduate in Pharmacy)

  • Peter Ki

    What is the difference between ‘can not’ and ‘cannot’?

  • Jason

    You should have clarified futher. It’s a degree to be come a Master of your chosen subject, so the degree is a Master’s degree (possessive form: the degree of the Master). It is sometimes seen as Masters’ degree when referring to the course as a whole because it’s then a collective plural (referring to all the students who will become Masters: the degrees of the Masters). I often find that understanding is aided by contextual examples more than by just quoting lists of guidelines.

    @ Peter Ki:

    “Can not” is two words and implies there is something you can do, and something you can not do (I can not drive) which may be possible to change from “can not” to “can”.

    “Cannot” is similar with the distinction that it is a single word and unbreakable. It is for something which you cannot do (I cannot fly) which is not possible to change.

  • Eric Roth

    Thank you for that concise, clear explanation. You’ve answered a very common question for international graduate students in a simple, authoritative manner.

  • Brenda

    Please explain when to use lie and lay and dreamed or dreamt. Once I said to my friend, “Last night I dreamed about …..” She replied, “Last night, I dreamt about……” So which is correct?

  • Gouri

    I think, masters & master’s both are acceptable…

  • Maeve

    You’ll find not one, but two posts on the difference between lay and lie in the DWT archives:

    I’m almost ready to throw in the towel on those two verbs.

    As for “dreamt” and “dreamed,” it’s a matter of choice. Personally I prefer the older form, “dreamt,” but your use of “dreamed” is perfectly acceptable.

  • Maeve

    “It is sometimes seen as Masters’ degree when referring to the course as a whole…”

    I’ve never seen such a usage. “Masters’ degrees” perhaps, but “Masters’ degree” makes no sense. Can you document it with an example from a reliable source?

  • Dan

    When its a question of style I consider the context and choose the most popular usage, or consult the style guide used by the audience I am speaking/writing to (e.g. Chicago, MLA, APA, etc)

    Google hits:
    “Master’s degree” = 8.8 million
    “Masters’ degree” = 5.6 million
    “Masters degree” = 5.5 million

    “Master’s thesis” = 1.8 million
    “Masters thesis” = 0.6 million
    ‘Masters’ thesis” = 0.6 million

    I wonder what percentage of those hits are links to people discussing the apostrophe 🙂

    Google hits (not a definitive answer to my question):
    “masters degree” and “master’s degree” = 500K
    “masters thesis” and “master’s thesis” = 30K

  • Dan

    My “When its” should be “When it’s” 🙂

  • Jason


    Please read this short but informative article:

  • April

    Who is this Jason? I think I love him! 🙂 Thank you for the clarification. Even though I possess a MLIS, I’ve seen it differ so many times.

  • Mary Ann

    When will this website host another short story writing contest?

    Thank you

  • Vivek

    Which is correct correct article in sentence below

    He got an/a/the/(no article required) M.A. degree.

  • nike ao

    @ Vivek: He got an M.A. degree because of the phonetic component ‘Em Ae’. Remember the rule guiding the a. e. i.o.u? – an apple, an egg, an inning, an opener, and an umbrella?

    Of course, he could have gotten ‘the M.A. degree’ also, based on the context, ( like if you had mentioned the specific degree earlier on and then subsequently refer to it as ‘the degree’ )

    ‘He got a MA degree’ is an absolute no-no!

  • AnonymissEditor

    The apostrophe in master’s degree functions identically to the apostrophe in other words indicating possession.

    A masters’ degree would be one degree earned by (possessed by) two or more masters.

    A master’s degree is the degree possessed by the individual who earned it.

  • Mark Spalding

    I didn’t find the explanation about “can not” and “cannot” particularly clear. I think the explanation is much simpler.

    “Can not” means “not allowed,” as in “He can not leave the room.”

    “Cannot” means “unable to,” as in “He cannot walk.”

    Peculiarly enough, the contraction for both forms is “can’t.”

  • Smart Potato

    @Mark Spalding:

    They are both “conditional” (as in, there’s no 110% rule for either); however, each leans more toward its own: “the likely (can not) vs. “impossible” (cannot).

    In other words, the separated version is indicative of a situation/ condition that could most likely be changed. The “cannot” means, for the most part, not at all.

    Think of them like this:

    1) No matter what I do, I can NOT lose weight! (the speaker can, depending on the method)

    2) Humans cannot breathe under water (they cannot on their own, but can with an apparatus)

  • Depocles

    I’m going to counter the official opinion and put in my vote for “Masters” since I’d always heard/imagined it as a proper noun, the degree named after those who went before and obtained it, those who were masters of various subjects.

    Proper usage:

    He has his Masters degree.
    He is a master of music.

    As evidence, I put forth the contradiction that if we are to hold that it is a “Master’s” degree, then technically it can’t be called that until the applicant has already obtained it.

  • Grant

    @depocles Don’t be silly. Maybe you should go to the buses station. You are perpetuating the mistake of millions of people. Stop it.

    Away and do your master. I’m sure he will appreciate it. Or he could take you for a walk, if you already have one.

  • Education Tay

    Like many people I have masters degree in management. The university that I completed my master in London has different spelling for masters, master’s in more that on department.

    Degree certificate has: Masters of

    What is the correct spelling? I do not know as I received a poor school education from Creiff Road Academy Perth.

  • Ti

    Question: would it be Master’s students, Masters’ students, or Master’s degrees students, or Masters’ degree students?

    There are multiple Master’s degrees, and there are multiple students, being referred to in this sentence. The subject is the multiple students of the multiple Master’s degree programs.

    “Only junior, senior, and [master’s students] are eligible for this symposium.”

  • Karen

    If you are taking a graduate course, would it be a master level course or a master’s level course?

  • Azuka

    @ Karen

    It should be a master level course for a single course. Do notice that it is 1 course. If it is multiple courses, you can say, master’s level course . Master’s generally refer to the degree, as in, I have a Master’s degree. Do notice that the M is capitalized. For example, a Master in Art. It can also be written as Master’s degree. It all depends on context.

  • I Ren

    @Azuka, if it were multiple courses, the noun (course) should be pluralised, not the descriptive (master). Even though, in truth, you didn’t pluralise master. You inserted an apostrophe, making it a possessive.

  • Jenny

    Which is proper : ‘I am a Master’s graduate’ or ‘ I am a Masters graduate’ ?

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Grant: I agrees completely with your statement, especially the part, “Don’t be silly.” In this context, “master’s” is a possessive. This is true: I have two master’s degrees, and I knew a studious man who had three master’s degrees. We earned them, we possess them, and they cannot be taken away.
    “@depocles Don’t be silly. Maybe you should go to the buses station. You are perpetuating the mistake of millions of people. Stop it.”
    Darth Vader said, “I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-wan. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the Master.”
    Maybe Darth Vader had a master’s degree in evil.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The intelligent way, and the American way, to abbreviate anything is with periods, except in very long abbreviations like USSR, AT&T, and ATSF, and ones that are pronounceable, like DEW Line, NASA, CINCPAC, AMTRAK, and HAL 9000.
    Hence, B.A., B.S., M.S., Ph.D., D.Sc., M.P.H., M.D., D.D.S.,
    In the commercial world, there is also the issue of which ones are registered trademarks, such as AMTRAK, BBC, CBS, IBM, ITT, JAL, M/A Com, NBC, RCA, SAS, TNT, UAL, and Zip Code.
    Then there are those with holes in their heads who do not know that AMTRAK, Zip Code, AT&T, and NC-17 are registered trademarks, and they do not care to learn.

  • Kristine Meyers

    Do NOT capitalize Master’s when generally referring to a master’s degree–common noun.

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