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Columbia MA in Political Science vs JHU SAIS MA in China Studies

Ken Shen

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I'm currently attending University of Toronto, majoring in political science and international relations, with a cGPA of 3.72. I am interested in comparative politics and IR, with a focus on China-Japan relations and China politics.

I've been accepted by Columbia (no funding) and SAIS (with 10k fellowship) and rejected by Columbia's PhD program.

I'm quite concerned that Columbia's MA program only lasts one year. And I want to apply for PhD program after finishing MA. The thing is I don't know whether I can get three references in my first semester at Columbia. And I've browsed other posts on Columbia's MA. Most mention this is just a cash cow program.

For SAIS, the program consists of both economics and political science courses, and it lasts two years. I think I may attend a thesis course at SAIS if I can find a supervisor. 

Essentially, I want to boost up my chances of getting in a PhD program after finishing my MA. 

Anyone can comment which program might fit me better?


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This seems like a no-brainer. You haven't even listed any upside for Columbia. Is it just about the name? Because SAIS has a fantastic reputation. It's offering you funding, is longer, and gives the opportunity for more thesis-level work.

I will also add that in many fields professors know which MA programs are considered cash cows. If you think that's what the Columbia MA is, then my guess is professors will also know this and not consider the program to be on par with Columbia's reputation as a whole. From talking to professors, this is certainly true in my field (sociology)

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SAIS is a professional program. It explicitly does not prepare students for PhD, there is no required research component, and to my knowledge, you cannot do a thesis - honors are granted via an oral exam. Some people do go on to PhDs, mostly in public policy (which is a different field from political science), but they need to put in the extra legwork in getting the right preparation and research experience because again, this is not what the program is for. 

Columbia, on the other hand, is a cash cow. Rock and a hard place.

What specific weaknesses are you hoping to address in a master's? I would urge you to consider area studies programs if that weakness can be addressed in them because they are slightly better-funded. I would also urge you to apply in Canada. You can do just as well with a master's from a competitive Canadian institution, and you'll save $$.

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It seems like you are going to be spending too much money. 

MA in PS at Columbia is not going to get you into a PhD program. You won't get strong letters in such a short amount of time. I often read silly letters like "I've met XX in my class... He is is taking the class right now and participates in class. I haven't read any of his work, but seems interested in political science." They make me fall asleep. Some of them are 2 paragraphs long and don't say anything. 

If there is something in Toronto doing China or Asia, you should ask to be their research assistant, even if it is for free. You need to get a better letter of recommendation and also, work on your research agenda. Chinese politics is OK, but what of Chinese politics? China-Japan relationship seems too specific and I don't think it is even relevant/interesting. Sounds like a history project to me.

Also, have to taken any methods classes? Do you know Chinese? Japanese? 

Are there any scholarships from the Canadian government to spend time abroad (e.g. like Fulbright)?

You can also look if there is  masters in Asian politics or something of the sort at Toronto. Getting a regional focus will serve you much better than doing a general political science masters. To be honest, the general political science masters will be a waste of time you want to do a PhD. You'll basically end up with 2 masters on the same thing. 

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