Academic degrees tell us what level of study a person has completed and often in what field or specialization. In its most basic form, a degree name will include only the level of study achieved—bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, for example. However, it will often also include a major and a minor, as well as any emphases, academic distinctions, and honors.
Guidance on how to capitalize and style degree names varies according to style guide, but in general, the best practice is to capitalize terms only when using specific degree names and proper nouns.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Associated Press Stylebook recommends not capitalizing degree names when they are expressed in general terms and capitalizing them when they are used to refer to a specific, formal degree. General terms for a degree include the level of study, are often accompanied by an article or pronoun such as “a” or “her,” and can include the word “degree.” For example, we’d set the following terms all lowercase:
associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctoral degree, doctorate
When using a specific, formal degree name, all parts of the name are capitalized:
Associate of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Master of Business Administration, Doctor of Philosophy
However, the major, or field of study, is set lowercase unless it is a proper noun, as is a minor or emphasis:
Associate of Arts in photography
associate degree in chemistry
Bachelor of Science in English, emphasis in journalism
Master of Business Administration in organizational leadership, minor in accounting
master’s degree in engineering, minor in French
Doctor of Philosophy in psychology, minor in sociology
The Chicago Manual of Style offers a different approach and recommends setting all parts of all degree names, both general and specific names, lowercase when they are used generically and in running text (CMOS 8.29).
associate of arts, associate degree, bachelor of science, master of business administration, master’s degree, doctor of philosophy
As with AP style, the major and a minor or emphasis are set lowercase unless they are proper nouns:
associate of arts in photography
associate degree in chemistry
bachelor of science in English, emphasis in journalism
master of business administration in organizational leadership, minor in accounting
master’s degree in engineering, emphasis in French
doctor of philosophy in psychology, minor in sociology
Chicago permits capitalizing the degree name when it appears and functions like a title rather than a description.
Anita Falmer, Master of Fine Arts, magna cum laude
Casey Smoul, Bachelor of Music
This includes when the degree name is used in lists and directories and on diplomas, business cards, resumes, and promotional items. However, Chicago does not offer specific guidance on how majors should be styled in these uses, so this will be determined by your preference or house style. In this situation, majors can be set either capital or lowercase, as long as usage is consistent.
Many U.S. colleges and universities award Latin honor distinctions in three levels of achievement with bachelor’s degrees and Juris Doctor degrees: cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude, which mean “with praise,” “with great praise,” and “with highest praise,” respectively.
When including Latin honors in the degree name, set them lowercase. The AP Stylebook and CMOS (7.55) are in agreement that these terms should not be italicized.
Bachelor of Science in nursing, summa cum laude (AP)
bachelor of science in nursing, summa cum laude (Chicago)
When degree names must be shortened, a mix of capital and lowercase letters are used depending on the established abbreviation. Some of the most common abbreviations use only capital letters:
Bachelor of Arts (BA)
Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
Master of Business Administration (MBA)
Other degree abbreviations use a mix of capital and lowercase letters, including the most well-known graduate degree: the doctor of philosophy.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Master of Arts in Education (MAEd)
Master of Engineering (MEng)
Master of Science in Engineering MScEng)
Doctor of Ministry (DMin)
Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
Chicago recommends omitting periods unless “required for reasons of tradition or consistency with…established style” (10.21), and AP style recommends including periods. Both guides state that degree abbreviations should be used after full names and set off with commas.
What’s in a name?
There are so many options on what to include in a degree name and how to style it that it can feel overwhelming. Even the word “degree” can give us pause. We’ll often hear “bachelor of arts degree” just as often as “bachelor’s degree” or “Bachelor of Arts.” The AP Stylebook advises removing the word “degree” when using the full specific degree name, which would be simply “Bachelor of Arts.” Most style guides don’t weigh in on this however. And although including the word “degree” in the full name isn’t incorrect in most circumstances or for many style guides, it is redundant and not necessary.
There’s also confusion around “associate degree” and it’s easy to see why. The general terms for bachelor’s and master’s degrees use the possessive form, so it’s understandable that people could assume the possessive form would also be used here. In fact, both “associate degree” and “associate’s degree” are widely used. The AP Stylebook advises using “associate degree,” but Merriam-Webster and Wordnik both include entries for “associate’s degree.” Google Ngram shows “associate degree” was used much more frequently from the 1980s to the 2000s, but since 2013 “associate’s degree” has been used nearly as often. The Chicago FAQ says both terms are “reasonable and logical” and allows for either. Using the possessive form will depend on the chosen style guide, consistency, and preference.
Another degree name to pay close attention to is the doctorate. “Doctorate” is the degree name, just as “master’s degree” is. When part of a specific, formal name, “Doctor” and the degree designation are used, as in “Doctor of Dental Surgery.” “Doctoral” is an adjective related to doctor or a doctorate, as in a “doctoral dissertation” or, yes, a “doctoral degree.”
As is often the case with style guidance, consistency is key. In general, it’s best practice to capitalize terms only when using specific degree names and proper nouns, and to avoid redundancy.