Masters Degree or Master’s Degree?

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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.

Should You Ever Drop the Apostrophe?

While it’s generally considered correct to include an apostrophe in master’s degree, there are some publications – including academic ones – that don’t.

A good example is the UK website prospects.ac.uk, which is aimed at helping students choose a career. Throughout the site, Masters degree is used, instead of master’s degree.

If you’re writing for a specific publication (like a website or journal) or a particular publishing house, use their style guide. If they want you to write Masters degree or masters degree, do that.

If you’re writing for your own website, blog, or you’re self-publishing a book, it’s entirely up to you what you do. Keep in mind that master’s degree is the most common and conventional punctuation of that phrase, though.

Also, whatever option you go for, make sure you’re consistent in what you do: don’t have master’s degree in some places and masters degree in others, and don’t use BA (without periods) and M.A. (with periods) – pick one and stick to it.

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

Video Recap

Quick Summary

The rules to follow, then, are:

  • Use master’s (with an apostrophe) to talk about degrees – unless you’re writing for a publication that has chosen to use “masters”.
  • Don’t capitalize master unless you’re speaking about a specific degree (e.g. “He holds a Master of Science”.
  • When abbreviating, check with a style guide. Some publications will abbreviate Master of Arts as M.A. and others will abbreviate it as MA (without the periods).
  • Check what abbreviation a specific institution or country uses, too: in the US, a Master of Science is normally abbreviated as “MS” or “M.S.” whereas in the UK and Europe, it’s “MSc” or “M.Sc”.

What About Other Degrees?

The same rules apply to bachelor’s degrees (normally “bachelors degrees” or “bachelors’ degrees”). Other degree levels aren’t written in the same way – e.g. doctoral degrees – so the apostrophe isn’t an issue.

With any type of degree, though, you should follow the above rules on abbreviating it … and always use your publication or publisher’s style guide, if applicable.

Masters or Master’s Quiz

In each case, select the correct form of the missing word, which is indicated by (blank). Unless otherwise indicated, assume that the most common and conventional spelling/punctuation is being used.

  • 1. My friend has just started her (blank) degree.

  • 2. I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish my (blank) degree.


  • 3. I’m proud to be able to call myself a (blank) of Science.

  • 4. She holds a (blank) degree currently, but hopes to gain a (blank) degree within the next two years.

    First blank B.A. and second blank M.A.
    First blank BA and second blank M.A.

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33 thoughts on “Masters Degree or Master’s Degree?”

  1. 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)

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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?

  5. @Brenda
    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.

  6. @Jason
    “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?

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. @ 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.”

  12. @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)

  13. 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.

  14. @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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.”

  17. @ 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.

  18. Umm.
    @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.

  19. @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.

  20. 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.

  21. It’s been clear for awhile that greedy US schools have successfully brainwashed students into thinking lame grad degrees are worth the money but this page is a new low. Is my understanding correct that the only subject here is the proper grammar of phrasing a grad degree on a resume?

    This is literally the epitome of emphasizing form over substance i.e., emphasizing what doesn’t matter over what should matter.

    Stop debating semantics kids. Get to work.

  22. Most of the discussion here revolves around the singular. but what if you have a group?

    For example would you title a course

    “C1 Masters Students”
    or “C1 Master’s Students”
    or “C1 Masters’ Students”


    Wouldn’t the essence of what you want to convey be more pluralising than possessing? (Note I’ve not included the ultra cumbersome “C1 Masters’s Students”)



  23. Noel,
    I can’t imagine titling a course in any of these ways. Perhaps a course might be reserved for “master’s degree students.” No matter how many students are pursuing degrees, the degree itself remains singular. An institution, on the other hand, might offer several different master’s degrees.

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