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So I'm not sure if I'm getting bogged down in prestige and rankings here, but I had a bit of a rough cycle, with only 1 offer from Cornell University, and an MA offer from Columbia. I know where all my weak areas were in my application - low GREs, my SOP was not focused on research enough, etc., and lack of methodology training mainly. My question is, is it better to take the MA offer from Columbia, improve my applications, and apply to the top schools again next year with the necessary improvements/changes, or is a Cornell PhD fine? My research focuses on China, which I know Cornell is strong in, if that helps. 

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My two cents: unless you don't feel ready to do a Ph.D yet AND there's funding for the Columbia MA, in your place I'd go to Cornell right now.

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I would agree with @VMcJ - Cornell is a very reputable program, if you don't mind living in Ithaca. There's also no guarantee what will happen after you get your MA, since the variables all change for each cycle (who applies, how competitive the round is, whether funding gets cut for programs, etc.). I actually know someone who turned down a PhD to do a Master's at his ideal institution, hoping to get into the PhD program afterwards, and was unfortunately not accepted to the PhD at his Master's institution.

The only thing that would convince me to recommend the MA offer is 1) if it is fully funded (cost of living in NYC is extremely high), 2) if you think you can gain some substantial training in it and some career clarity, and 3) if you would be happy with an MA if you were not accepted into your preferred PhD program in the following cycle. 

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If you (1) feel that you can effectively address the weaknesses of your application until next cycle (- and doing well in methods/research design classes at Columbia will certainly add to the quality of your application), (2) have a strong preference for working at a top 15-20 university after finishing your PhD, and (3) can afford the MA at Columbia, I could see why you are considering to turn down Cornell in order to get into a better program in the future .

There is an undeniable difference in placements between, for instance, Harvard/Stanford/Princeton and universities in the top 8 to top 12 range. However, only you have the information to calculate whether the expression (expected benefit of getting into a better program*probability of getting into a better program + advantages of the MA at Columbia (network, knowledge, prestige,...)) outweighs the costs of reapplying (MA tuition/costs of living, probably entering the job market one year later, risk of not getting into a program at all,...).

I am in a similar position: I have a fully funded offer from a top 10 university, but I am not entirely happy about this cycle and I am currently trying to get more information on what my chances would be if I were to reapply next year (with a LoR from a methods Prof., more field experience, better GRE) :)

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Thanks everyone for your replies! I'm very unsure at the moment, especially because I just found out that one of the professors I want to work with at Cornell is considering leaving the school. Quite frankly, the money is the biggest issue at this point, but I'm pretty sure that I would be able to improve my applications with better focus next year. 

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Keep one thing in mind: the number of applicants is growing every year and it is harder and harder to get admission. At my department, just over the past 2 years we've had a 50% increase in the number of applicants. Admission is not just about how good you are. It is also about how good are the other candidates.

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If you go to Cornell and take full advantage of what the program has to offer in honing your skills as a China scholar, you will not have trouble being placed. I don't know how many people study China, but very few can attain a high level of credibility as scholars of the country. If you can become one of those people, you will not have a problem.

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