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What is a research university?

February 21, 2019

With the incredible pool of colleges and universities available around the world, it can be daunting to even begin your search.

One great way to start is to think about the different types of schools out there. There are small liberal arts schools and massive institutions of technology. There are sprawling community colleges and even specialized-mission colleges.

In this article, we are going to focus on one type of higher education institution: the research university.

Research university 101

It’s all in the name: Research universities are seriously committed to their research. It is the overwhelming focus for the majority of students on campus. Above all, if you are interested in a specific body of research or know that there is research that you would like to get involved in or conduct yourself, a research university is the place to be.

There are many things that set research universities apart from other types of institutions. Let’s explore the three major Fs of research universities.


Much of the research in the hard sciences, social sciences and technology around the world is conducted at universities. Research universities get an extraordinary amount of funding from governments to produce their research.

In the United States, the federal government allocates billions of dollars every year to thousands of universities in the form of research and development grants and contracts. And this money for research means new findings that impact all aspects of life. In fact, the U.S. accounted for 22 of the top-30 universities with the highest relative impact over 2003-12.

Good funding means more research conducted which leads to publications. If you’re interested in seeing which universities the top-cited publications are coming out of, explore this chart. You will find that Harvard University is number one.

Not only are there great research opportunities, but this money also gets allocated to top-of-the-art equipment and materials to work with. All students benefit from a school with a lot of funding.


Because there is fabulous funding for research at these schools, top scientists and academics are drawn to them. This money gives them the ability to explore research ideas with more ease. This means that you will have leaders in the field as your professors.

All research universities have a graduate school. These graduate students tend to work more closely with the professors than undergraduates. It is through these graduate schools that much of the undergraduate program gets its teachers. The professors at the university are mostly focused on the research they’re doing and instructing in the graduate school, therefore it is the graduate students who lead many of the classes as Teaching Assistants.

So, though your professor may seem distant - only teaching a lecture once a week to a class of 150 for example - you will work more intimately with a graduate student. There are of course pros and cons to this. If you are more interested in having a direct relationship with a professor, definitely consider a smaller school without a graduate program.


Going undergrad to a research university is all about access. You’ll have great opportunities to work on world-changing projects and participate in cutting edge research. You’ll connect with other great minds in your field from fellow undergrads, graduate students and professors.

When you’re ready to think about your life after undergrad, being able to get recommendations from household names, having a CV with important research contributions and using classmates as connections will all help you in moving into your next stage of life - especially if you’re considering graduate school.

Finding the right fit

If you’re interested in attending a research university, you still have a wide pool of schools to choose from. You might want to look by U.S. region or current research projects.

If cost of attendance is something that you are worried about, you might be interested in looking at schools that have great financial aid coverage.

If you want to learn more about what defines a research university, read this short statement by the Association of American Universities.