What Is a Research University?

Last updated: Dec 18, 2020

From global positioning systems and magnetic resonance imaging to the nicotine patch and antibiotics, research universities are responsible for some of mankind’s greatest discoveries. But beyond its power as an engine of innovation, what is a research university, and can it provide an ideal environment for an undergraduate student like you?

According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, there are just 131 universities that focus on the highest levels of research. These universities award the most doctoral degrees, receive high levels of federal research dollars, and offer a wide range of bachelor’s degree programs. USF is classified as an R1 doctoral university with very high research activity, a distinction attained by only 2.5 percent of all post-secondary institutions.

Over the years, there have been questions as to whether research universities can fulfill their primary missions and deliver an excellent education for undergraduates. The short answer: Yes, they can, and they do. In fact, undergraduates at research universities have access to exceptional benefits simply not available at other institutions.

Two USF undergraduate students work with their professor on a research project

Research University Myths vs. Reality

Across the Google-sphere and in mainstream media, opinions abound on the pitfalls awaiting undergraduate students at research universities. Allow us to dispel some of the most common myths:

Myth 1: Teaching is Not a Priority

Have you heard the time-worn nugget that researchers make terrible professors? Don’t believe it. The best researchers also can be top teachers. They’re passionate about their fields, and they carry that energy into the classroom to share with students. In addition, they typically understand their fields better than professors who don’t conduct research, allowing them to better explain the course material.

Myth 2: The Class Sizes are Huge

Afraid you’ll be nothing more than a number? While it’s true that many introductory courses are large, the majority of your courses will not be. For example, USF’s overall student-faculty ratio is 21:1.

In classes that are larger than average, students typically spend two-thirds of their time in lectures with a professor and one-third in a much smaller recitation section headed by a graduate student. These small groups provide an opportunity to clarify confusing subject matter or receive personal assistance with problems or questions.

In addition, many research universities offer admittance into honors colleges housed within the institution. Smaller classes are just one of the perks available to high-achieving students, along with priority registration, faculty advisors, and special housing. When visiting universities, check out the admission requirements for their honors colleges.

Myth 3: Professors Are Never Available

You may need to reach out to your busy professors, but most are happy to answer questions and serve as mentors and role models. These meaningful relationships can lead to networking and research opportunities along with letters of recommendation for graduate school or your first real job.

The USF Research & Innovation wall of patents recognizing research breakthroughs

Why a Research University May Be Your Ideal Fit

Now that we’ve busted some of the common myths surrounding research universities, let’s take a look at the advantages. Here are just a few of the benefits you can look forward to:

Courses That Incorporate the Latest Research

Professors involved in research are in touch with breaking developments in their fields, and they’re likely to include these new discoveries in their courses. This means you’ll have access to cutting-edge knowledge long before everyone else. Consider the alternative: It can take up to 10 years for new academic research to find its way into textbooks!  

More Specialized Majors

Research universities tend to have a larger faculty and a wider range of majors to explore. For example, USF offers more than 200 undergraduate majors and concentrations across our three campuses. In addition, within a single field like biology, research universities tend to offer many subdisciplines like biochemistry, marine biology and biomedical engineering, just to name a few.

Access to State-of-the-Art Facilities

Fans of the Big Bang Theory know that high-level university research requires some fancy equipment and facilities (like an arena for secret-agent laser chess). OK, we’re kidding about the arena, but larger libraries and cutting-edge labs do feature prominently on research campuses, and they’re often paid for courtesy of grants from government agencies, businesses, and other partners. The bottom line: Researchers aren’t the only ones who benefit from high-tech gadgets and facilities. You’ll get to use them, too.

Science students use microscopes and their professor provides instruction

Undergraduate Research Opportunities

The typical college experience is centered on consuming knowledge. At a research university, you’ll have opportunities to create knowledge alongside your professors by participating in undergraduate research. In addition to helping solve some of the world’s problems, undergraduate research looks great on a résumé and can help increase your chances of getting into graduate school or landing a job.

Opportunities to Take Graduate Courses

Considering graduate school? Research universities sometimes allow undergraduates to take graduate courses. These advanced-level courses are a great way to test the waters and decide if graduate school is the right choice after graduation. A research university also often offers the option of an accelerated master’s degree in select fields of study, sometimes called 3+2 programs. In them, you take a combined five years instead of six to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. For instance, USF’s College of Education offers the Science Teaching Accelerated Master’s Program, in which you complete a bachelor’s degree in a science field, plus a master’s in arts in teaching, and you do both in just five years.

Preferential Treatment in Graduate School Admission

In some academic fields, graduate and professional schools prefer candidates from rigorous undergraduate programs at research universities. They tend to be partial to candidates whose professors are well-known researchers in the field, with bonus points if they provide letters of recommendation.

Think a research university may be right for you? Learn more about the opportunities available at the University of South Florida by contacting the Office of Admissions online or by phone at 813-974-3350.