Research University vs Teaching University: Which is Right for You?

Choosing the right college or graduate school may be one of the toughest decisions you will ever make. Whether you’re looking for a great bachelor’s degree program or you’re ready to move on to the graduate level, there are a lot of factors to consider, including reputation, cost, geography, student body, and more. So how can you narrow down the field?

Research University vs Teaching University: Which is Right for You?

Start by identifying the type of instructional experience you seek. Broadly speaking, most accredited universities can be identified as either Research Universities or Teaching Universities.

So what’s the difference between a research university and a teaching university? And how do you know which is right for you?

This article identifies the key features of both research universities and teaching universities, and highlights a few of the questions you should be asking yourself as you decide which experience is right for you.

What is a Research University?

A research university is any university that invests heavily in research, and which consequently provides meaningful and extensive opportunities for its students and faculty to participate in research.

Research universities are classified into different tiers based on their quantifiable commitment to research activities. This tiered ranking is called the Carnegie Classification. These classifications are an indication of both prestige and commitment to research among colleges and universities. Carnegie ranks schools on separate tiers based on a quantitative formula that, for doctoral programs, measures the number of degrees conferred versus research dollars spent, and for master’s programs, measures the number of degrees conferred versus the size of the student body.

Find out more about the Carnegie Classifications.

Research universities may be privately or publicly funded, though all conduct rigorous ongoing fundraising campaigns to support the work of department faculty and staff, as well as provide capital for laboratories, technology and fellowships. The top research universities are typically also those with the largest endowments for research. Because of these endowments, top research universities are often in a position to attract prominent faculty, who are drawn by higher compensation and the ability to conduct original research in their fields.

Contrary to the popular misconception that professors at research universities are either ill-suited for, or uninterested in, teaching, many professors at these elite institutions are passionate about sharing their knowledge and experience with the next generation of scholars and scientists.

Why are research universities important?

Research universities invest heavily in technology and research facilities, and are therefore often the site of important findings, exciting innovations, and medical breakthroughs. Top research universities around the world have invented the Sonic toothbrush, performed the first successful heart/lung transplant, and developed drugs to treat heroin addiction.

As a prospective graduate student, you will likely find a greater variety and depth of concentrations at schools designated M1 (master’s programs at top research universities) or R1 (doctoral programs at top research universities). This may be attributed to the presence of more prominent, influential, and specialized faculty and greater financial resources.

Moreover, because top tier research universities are generously endowed, most have the funding to support costly but potentially groundbreaking research efforts. Many top research universities are large, multi-campus schools with as many as 15,000 students or more. Prospective students, especially at the undergraduate level, must decide whether or not this large campus experience is a good fit before enrolling in a top-tier research university.

That said, the benefits of attending a top-tier M1 or R1 school are consequential. M1 or R1 schools carry a certain level of prestige that truly matters in the pursuit of a master’s or doctoral degree. Moreover, prospective graduate students seeking an experience which emphasizes hands-on research will likely be interested in attending an M1/M2 or R1/R2 school.

What is a teaching university? How is a teaching university different from a research university?

A teaching university is a school which places a direct emphasis on student instruction, support, and success. Teaching universities do not have the massive endowments enjoyed by the top research universities, and therefore may not spend as much on research. In the place of this focus, teaching universities focus on ensuring students have the opportunities and tools needed to succeed.

Teaching universities often dispense with many of the traditional large campus perks, such as athletics and extravagant students centers. In their place, teaching universities may offer smaller class sizes, more accessible instructors, and more practical support in areas like writing and exam preparation.

Teaching universities elevate different priorities than research universities. For students and faculty who prefer more direct instruction, engagement, and enrichment, teaching universities often create the space for these personalized experiences. While professors at top research universities must balance their teaching responsibilities alongside research and publishing goals, faculty at teaching universities are typically free to make direct student instruction the top priority.

Research University versus Teaching University: Which one is right for you?

Your decision will depend on the kind experience you want out of your undergraduate or graduate program, as well as your subsequent educational and professional goals. As you make your decision, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What motivates you?
    • If your goals include access to influential faculty, a prestigious grad school, and a specialized research concentration, consider a research university.
    • If you are motivated by personalized instruction, skill development, and practical education, consider a teaching university.
  2. What do you need to succeed?
    • If you need small class sizes and personalized attention from your professors, choose a teaching university.
    • If you are fairly self-directed and don’t mind large class sizes, you could be successful at a research university.
  3. What can you afford?
    • Remember that top-tier research universities are often among the most expensive, though some may also offer excellent return on your investment through job and salary potential. Carefully weigh the economic pros and cons of attending a top research institute.
  4. What is most important to you?
    • In addition to cost, consider factors like geography, campus culture, and class size as you make your decision.
  5. What are your short-term goals?
    • Does a teaching university allow you to take the next intended step in your education or career, or will you need the prestige and research experience only possible through a research university in order to reach that next level?
  6. What are your long-term goals?
    • Will your career ultimately require you to earn an advanced degree at a top-tier research university? Will failing to do so place a ceiling on your job or salary potential?

Use these questions to narrow down exactly what you need and want from your educational experience. There are a number of factors to consider, but the most important one is your personal preference. Identify your goals, your needs, and your priorities, then choose the educational experience that best aligns with all of these variables.

For a little more help, take a look at our resource on the Carnegie Classification system.

Or start your search for a top-tier research university with a look at the Most Influential Colleges and Universities in the world.