When referring to the degree level, the word “master’s” should always include an apostrophe. This includes when you are referring to multiple students or one student with multiple degrees. The only time you would not use an apostrophe is if you were using the formal name of the degree.
Here’s what you need to know about punctuation when it comes to master’s degrees, including when to use and when to omit the apostrophe before the “s” and the “s” itself.
Masters degree or master’s degree?
When you are referring to a degree in the “master” category – a degree achieved for a specific, usually complicated subject – you should always use an apostrophe before the “s” in “master’s.”
This is because it follows the same convention as standard punctuation; the student has become a master of a certain subject, so the degree belongs to a master. The apostrophe indicates possession. Hence, master’s degree.
- Correct: John is pursuing a master’s degree in Medical Science.
- Incorrect: John is pursuing a masters degree in Medical Science.
If you were to omit the apostrophe, the sentence would imply the existence of multiple masters, and would not directly apply ownership to the degree itself. The degree belongs to the person who mastered the subject, so it is the master’s degree.
Master’s students for plural students
The above rules make sense when you are referring to a single person who holds a particular degree, but what about if you are referring to two or more students? Surprisingly, the answer does not change.
If you are referring to multiple students who either have or are obtaining a master’s degree, you would refer to them as master’s students.
- Professor Jones teaches master’s students at the university.
- The graduating class had several master’s students.
This is because each student is a singular “master” with their degree – while there are multiple of them, they may not all be masters of the same subject. Once again, omitting the apostrophe would remove the direct ownership of the degree, so it would be incorrect.
Master’s students for plural degrees
What if you are referring to one student who has multiple degrees? Would it then be appropriate to say that they have multiple masters? Surprisingly, the answer is still no.
If you are referring to one student with multiple degrees, you would say that they have multiple master’s degrees.
- Ellen has master’s degrees in Microbiology and Infectious Disease.
Yet again, there is only one master – the student – even though there are multiple degrees. To remove the apostrophe would still imply that there are multiple masters, which would be incorrect.
It would also be incorrect to say that they have “two masters.” This not only implies the existence of another master of the subject (which there isn’t, in this context – you’re only referring to the one person with degrees), it also does not imply that you are referencing the master’s degree program at all, which may make your sentence confusing or misleading.
Master of or in?
What about when you are talking about the subject of your degree? Would it be appropriate to say “master’s in” your subject, or “master’s of” your subject? Generally, whether you use “of” or “in” when referring to your degree depends on the context of the sentence.
If you are talking about the title of the degree, meaning the full title listed on the degree program, then you would usually omit the “s” from “master,” move the word “degree” to the end of the phrase, and say “of.”
- John has a Master of Medical Science degree.
On the other hand, if you were talking about which field the degree covers without specifically calling out the name of the degree program, you would keep “degree” after “master’s” and say “in.”
- John has a master’s degree in Medical Science.
In the first sentence, the speaker is giving the degree’s formal title. In the second, the speaker is giving the general field of the degree.
Learning to punctuate “master’s degree” correctly doesn’t actually take a master’s degree. You just have to remember that the degree holder is a master of their subject and should be referred to as such.