Research vs Teaching Universities: Differences, Pros & Cons


Last Updated on June 9, 2021 by David Shaw

Research vs Teaching Universities

Choosing a university can be a tough decision given the wide array of choices. If you’ve ever stumbled across research and teaching universities while scouting for universities before, you might wonder what are the differences and how to distinguish them.

So what are the differences between research and teaching universities?

Generally, a research university’s mission is primarily focused on research development and sectioned into subdivisions within a particular subject. Meanwhile, teaching universities are more focused on the development of quality teaching, undergraduate and master’s degree programs.

Picking a university is a big moment for everyone, so let’s understand the difference between research and teaching universities in this article to help you make a choice.

They Have Distinct Mission And Goals

Although the mission of every university is to produce bright and successful alumni contributing their efforts in the name of science or business accomplishments, however, the truth is that research and teaching universities don’t particularly share the same mission and goals.

nobel prize

Research is the top priority in Research universities

As the name suggests, a research university’s top purpose is to publish and participate in astonishing research projects to garner the reputation they need from top institutions from all over the world.

Unlike teaching universities, the primary source of funding that keeps research universities running is through proposing and getting research dollars through government grants, big foundations (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), or NGOs (World Wide Fund for Nature) which greatly supports the work of university faculties including professors.

In a non-profit research university when a faculty’s payroll and research thesis and funding is greatly supported by third-party organizations, it would be necessary for researchers, who are also university lecturers, to divert more of their focus on research compared to conducting quality lectures.

But how is this system relevant to students?

As a consequence, a single lecture might be crammed with students, with the majority of class participation activities, labs, grading done by teaching assistants rather than the professors themselves. Being subjected to such teaching practice, finding opportunities to establish a relationship with your professors or even directly ask questions could be a difficult task at times.

However, in an academic institution where research is above anything else, Nobel Prize winners routinely come from the ranks of such universities. With great exposure to unique opportunities and high-end modern resources working with a remarkable team of individuals, it could serve as a considerably fair trade-off.

Promoting knowledge is the top mission in teaching universities

Teaching universities on the flipside mainly focus on promoting knowledge and the development of the whole in students. To elaborate further, it fosters and promotes the thinking of a person, cultivation of creativity, nurturing of social and cultural sensibilities to lay the foundation for civic engagement of all sorts among aspiring individuals.

How does this translate into the benefits students will be subjected to?

Having to be more reliant on tuition fees and profit organizations, teaching universities put heavy emphasis and funding into the development of their faculty division, study programs, smaller faculty-student ratio to better accommodate the learning needs of students.

Teaching universities pride themselves by offering robust Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree programs, quality lectures, and a well-knit society to facilitate communication between its faculty and students compared to the principles of a research university.

In short, the learning experience of their students in teaching universities is their top priority above anything else.


These different factors between research and teaching universities contribute to the quality of teaching of professors as well as the exposure to resources a lecturer can offer. In short, the general etiquette of research universities is tailored in favor of researchers and graduates students of higher-level degrees, while teaching universities are geared more towards nurturing undergraduates on building solid foundations in their preferred field of knowledge.

To view a list of 130+ elite research universities in the US, here’s a link to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

How Classes Are Conducted

Although both types of universities might offer study programs of similar qualities in terms of their lecture material and faculty expertise, there’s a couple of notable differences in the way classes are conducted in research and teaching schools.

packed lecture hall
  • Student-faculty ratio

A balanced student-faculty ratio is crucial to ensure that students get help and questions answered during lectures, office hours, or even acquire research opportunities.

Compared to teaching schools, the student-to-faculty ratio in public research schools is significantly higher due to the larger student volume and similar demand for classes. For instance, the average student-faculty ratio at the University of California, Berkeley is 19:1 while the University of Southern California’s website, a private university, is only around 8:1.

According to the sources at U.S. News, the “University of Southern California school has 61.1% of its classes with fewer than 20 students,” mainly due to it being a private institution. Some lectures at public universities can even scale up from 100 to 500 students, which leads us to the next point about Teaching Assistants.

  • Employment Of Teaching Assistants (TA)

You will most likely encounter teacher assistance in research universities to help professors accommodate for a higher number of students in a lecture. Sometimes otherwise known as Graduate Student Instructors (GSI), their job is to conduct labs, grade tests, and host group discussions to share the professor’s tasks.

TAs essentially work closely with the professors to make up for the discussions, grading work, and lab work that can’t possibly handle alone. Like previously mentioned, research schools always put research work as their top priority, and with the help of TAs, it leaves professors with more time to work on their research projects.

  • Different Conduct Of Office Hours

Office hours are useful especially for higher-level classes when class materials get difficult. Students usually use this opportunity to discuss questions, lecture materials, or discuss anything related to classes in general.

Often in public research schools, office hours are usually flooded with students around professors or teaching assistants either discussing a problem or consulting help.

As for teaching universities, a professor’s office hour is typically more easily accessible when needed. With that said, expect office hours in research universities to be more hectic and harder to directly reach your professors due to the higher number of students compared to teaching universities.


Regardless of the different class structures in different types of schools, some important factors students should understand and look for in a school include things like its academic program, research opportunities, campus activity, and active outreach programs.

Other than that, the factors that affect lectures directly between research and teaching schools can be negligible if we take initiative as students to ask questions and look for help the right way. An important reminder is to not be afraid to make mistakes during our time in university.

Different Research Project Opportunities

research lab

Participating in research projects as an undergraduate undoubtedly gives you an upper hand for admission into well-established graduate schools or for employment in competitive positions. However, a university must have the appropriate funding and connections to offer research opportunities in the first place.

Research Universities Are Heavy Funded To Do Research.

In a research university, lecturers are expected to participate in research projects and propose research fundings. This includes writing an extensive amount of proposals to government agencies or organizations while bearing the responsibility to supervise a high volume of students as well as team research team members.

Depending on the scale of the research study project, some groups may have thirty or more staff which includes undergrad to post-doctorates. This opportunity opens up many possibilities for undergraduates to start participating in research projects early in their careers.

Teaching Universities Typically Don’t Fund Research

On the other hand, teaching universities often have significantly less or little to just a few research opportunities as they have no adequate funding or facilities equipped with the tools to begin with. When research opportunities are scarce in a university, it is unlikely for the members to involve an undergrad with very little experience or expertise in their knowledge over any experienced candidate with a post-doctorate degree.

In contrast, research as often produced and proposed by faculties in research universities around the clock while teaching universities simply do outreach for endowments, and simply would not spend too much on researches.

Admission Requirements Are Different

Admission requirements for teaching universities often simpler and easier in terms of its entrance exams score requirements or supporting documents compared to research universities mainly due to its differences in competitiveness. Let’s talk about why that is in terms of the sizes of these universities.

The academic departments of teaching schools are often just under one big division, whereas research universities on the other hand are so large that they are organized by departments within their own field of disciplines.

Stanford University, for example, has academic departments like the Stanford School of Engineering, School of Medicine, and many other fields of discipline making their admission requirements more specialized and demanding to meet its rigorous academic standards.

Different Test Scores Criteria

A 4.0 GPA doesn’t guarantee you admission into research schools, however, the opposite would be true for most teaching universities. Research universities attract exceptional students from over the world, therefore they have unique test score requirements to select students from their large volume of applicants. In fact, a high GPA only contributes to half of the admission decisions for research schools as they take into account an applicant’s curricular activities and achievements.

Strangely enough, the University of California is even beginning to abandon the requirement for SAT and ACT scores for admission. This historic decision only goes to show how much research universities value holistic education in an individual besides only good academic performance. For instance, UCLA’s engineering website says “Merely meeting the minimum eligibility requirements of the university is rarely sufficient for admission to an engineering major.”

Research Universities Require Additional Supporting Document

For most research universities, outstanding academic transcripts are only part of the eligibility requirement to be offered admission compared to teaching schools. The famous University of California’s admission system is known for providing 4 supplemental essays, an optional list of activities or achievements, and recommendation letters along with test scores to be offered admission.

Additionally, for universities partnering with Common App, research universities usually require supplemental essays, optional achievement sections, and recommendation letters to allow applicants to stand out better in their admission process.


To recap, research schools typically require more documents or information about applicants other than just a good GPA due to their competitive admission process. If you’re planning to apply to research universities, be prepared to provide additional details by doing research and writing good essays related to stories about yourself.

Which one is for you?

When it boils down to the final question, how should you decide which type of university is for you?

If you’re driven and passionate about a particular field of studies and like to take initiative in learning, then research university might be for you from the get-go. With an endless and vast array of opportunities to learn and participate in research projects even as an undergraduate, research universities help supplement people with real-life applications and skills needed in the working industry early on.

If you prefer playing things safe starting out with an undeclared major, more reliant on a mentor’s guidance and directions in classes then teaching schools might work out for you. Teaching schools are generally geared towards promoting the thinking and creative of students, where one can easily find their interests while exploring vast majority of studies given its convenience to switch majors later on.

In the end, if you wish to pursue higher-level degrees, you will inevitably align back to the structure of research schools. So the best way to prepare ourselves overall is to be proactive in universities by taking initiative to find solutions to our problems rather than expect help to come our way all the time.

David Shaw

I enjoy blogging about the college experience, teaching people how to navigate and hack their way through college. I also enjoy promoting financial literacy among young individuals.

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