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What is a Research University?

Research universities are responsible for some of the world’s most exciting scientific breakthroughs. From the development of the internet to current advancements in stem cell research, universities have long been a place of groundbreaking research. In fact, 31% of America’s total research is performed at universities. 

If you’re interested in attending a research university, fortunately there are over 100 schools in the U.S. to choose from. While each of these schools is unique in its own way, they share a lot of similar qualities. In this guide, we’ll break down the defining characteristics of research universities. 

Also see: Scholarships360 major guides

First of all, what is considered “research”? 

Great question! Throughout high school, you’ve probably conducted various research projects that involve browsing the web and finding scholarly sources related to your topic. That’s definitely a form of research, but you’ll find that research looks a lot different at the university level. 

At universities, research is typically categorized as either basic or applied. The purpose of basic research is to improve our understanding of why or how certain things happen. Below are a few examples of basic research projects:

  • Investigating the impact of alcohol consumption on the brain
  • Examining if high stress levels make people more aggressive
  • Investigating whether a vegetarian diet is healthier than one with meat

This type of research expands our existing knowledge and can even lead to revolutionary changes in the way we think. Basic studies can also provide a foundation for applied research, the purpose of which is to find practical solutions for existing problems. Here’s a few examples of applied research: 

  • Investigating how to treat people with insomnia 
  • Searching for ways  to make car tires last longer
  • Reducing illiteracy rates in teenagers 

A variety of methods are used to conduct both basic and applied research. Projects can involve working in laboratories with expensive equipment, surveying people out in the community, or collecting physical samples out in nature. The point is that research can happen anywhere and focus on anything. 

Also see: Top STEM scholarships

So, what characterizes a research university? 

Now that you have a basic understanding of university-level research, let’s talk about what you can expect if you attend a research university. Below are some of the defining qualities of research universities: 

Research is the top priority 

You guessed it! Emphasis on academic research is what sets these universities apart from other schools. Unlike liberal arts colleges, where student instruction is the main focus, conducting research is the top priority for professors at these schools. Because federal funding is what keeps research universities running, professors are evaluated mainly on the scholarly papers they publish and the research dollars they attract. That doesn’t mean every faculty member is a researcher, but you’ll find that most are actively engaged in research projects. 

Research and internship opportunities for students 

If producing new and exciting research interests you, these schools are the place to do it. While professors rely mainly on graduate students for assistance with research, undergrads can get involved as well. Students can participate in collaborative research with faculty members and may even become co-authors of published papers or co-presenters at conferences. They can also take advantage of state-of-the-art research facilities stocked with the latest equipment. 

Researchers also tend to have great connections and can help their students secure internships and employment opportunities. 

Less emphasis on teaching 

At research universities, faculty members must take on teaching duties in order to support their first priority (research). This dynamic can create an environment in which student instruction takes a backseat to research efforts. For instance, professors often lean heavily on graduate students serving as teaching assistants. Additionally, they may be less focused on things like lesson planning and providing individualized attention to students. 

Opportunity for unique education 

While teaching isn’t the top priority, it’s still entirely possible for students to receive an excellent education at research schools. In fact, there’s a lot of upside for students at a research university. Professors who conduct research generally understand their field better than those who don’t, which means they can explain the material better to students. Faculty members may also be energized by the success of their research and carry that passion into the classroom. Not to mention, courses often incorporate the latest research developments.

Big student bodies and class sizes

Research universities tend to enroll tens of thousands of students, meaning that classes (especially introductory ones) are on the bigger side. If you attend one of these schools, at some point you’ll probably find yourself in a lecture hall alongside at least 100 other students. Students in these classes receive less attention and personalized feedback. However, the good news is that class sizes tend to shrink as you take more advanced courses. 

Large selection of majors

Research universities typically support a big network of faculty members across a wide variety of disciplines. That means students get to choose between a wider range of majors than they would at a smaller school. At the University of Washington, for instance, there are over 180 different majors. Students interested in niche subject areas are more likely to find the major they’re looking for at research universities. 

Interaction with grad students

Another benefit of attending a research university is that undergrads get the chance to interact with graduate students. Grad students can serve as valuable mentors and provide advice regarding career opportunities and graduate school programs. Undergrads may even get the chance to team up with grad students on research projects. 

Advantages for future grad students 

Attending a research university can also give you a leg up in the admissions process for graduate programs and professional schools. Depending on the program, you may be better qualified than students coming from smaller colleges. Plus, getting a letter of recommendation from a well-known researcher can go a long way. 

Also see: Scholarships360 scholarship search tool

Should I attend a research university? 

Research universities are great institutions for students interested in furthering their knowledge outside the classroom. Research and internship opportunities are usually plentiful, but can come at the cost of quality student instruction. Emphasis on teaching can vary even among research schools, though, so be sure to check with the specific universities you’re considering. If you can, speak with students and faculty members and see what they have to say about the school’s attitude toward teaching. Hopefully then you’ll have a better idea of whether the school is right for you.

Below we’ve listed some of the main pros and cons of research universities: 

Pros Cons
Opportunity to collaborate on important research projects  Quality of teaching may suffer as a result of research efforts 
Take classes taught by faculty members who are distinguished in their field  Large class sizes create less opportunity for personalized student attention 
Choose from a large selection of majors  Large student bodies may be overwhelming for some students 

Related: How to choose a college

Additional resources

If you’re making a decision about which college to attend, you’ve probably got a lot on your plate. We can help you through the process, piece-by-piece. Our resources include a guide of how many colleges to apply to, how to find safety, reach and match schools, and when to submit your applications. We can help you fill out the Common App activities and honors sections, and write a successful college application.

Once you hear back from schools, we can help you interpret your financial aid award letter, write a financial appeal, and apply for scholarships. And even once you’re in college, you can check out our resources on how to get involved on campus, how to save money, get a work-study job, and create a budget. Good luck!