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The wide range of academic institutions

Elizabeth Stivison
Feb. 19, 2021

There are many different types of academic institutions where people within the life sciences can research, teach and study. This week I’m exploring the range of academic institutions out there.

R-designated universities

One way of describing an institution is by its “R” designation. Research universities are categorized as R1, R2 and doctoral/professional (formerly R3) by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

If someone said, “Name a big research school!” you’d probably end up thinking of R1 and R2 places. To be an R1 or R2, the school must award more than 20 research or scholarship-based doctorates and have a research budget of more than $5 million per year.

R1 is considered “very high research activity” and includes schools such as Harvard University, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

R2 is considered “high research activity” and includes schools such Baylor University in Texas, The City College of New York, Kent State University in Ohio and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

Formerly, R3s were grouped based upon their “moderate research activity,” but the category was changed recently to doctoral/professional universities and now includes schools that award pharmacy and medical degrees, among others. This group includes Hofstra University in New York state and Indiana State University.

There are plenty of other schools that do research that are not included in these three categories because they have smaller budgets, don’t award enough (or any)  doctoral degrees, or just do research on a smaller scale.

The University of Texas at Austin is classified as an R1 institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Hospitals and medical centers

Coexisting in tight symbiosis with some of the research universities described above are research hospitals and medical centers.

Research done at hospitals sometimes seems so closely linked to research universities that it’s easy to forget they are usually separate institutions.

For example, labs at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston may have technicians and staff scientists hired as MGH staff, grad students from Harvard, postdocs from Harvard or MGH, and principal investigators who have appointments at MGH, Harvard or both.

The major differences usually have to do with the technicalities of grants, tax regulations and required training courses but do not usually affect day-to-day research. 

Independent research institutes

These research institutes operate a lot like R1 or R2 universities but aren’t schools.

Even though they aren’t schools, like the medical centers described above, they often have relationships with nearby schools so that Ph.D. students can work in labs at the institute.

Examples of these institutes include the Salk Institute, where students at the University of California, San Diego, can train, and the Whitehead Institute, where students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can train.

A unique example of an independent institute is the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which partners with Ph.D. programs at universities in New York City but also has its own graduate program, the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

The Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has its own graduate school, which offers a Ph.D. program in cell and molecular genetics. The school also partners with Michigan State University and Western Michigan University in an M.D./Ph.D. program.

Undergraduate and master's universities

Outside of major doctoral-granting research institutions, there are many other schools that focus more on undergraduate and master’s students. These schools may have some Ph.D. students, but undergrads and master’s students make up the vast majority of the student body.

This category includes liberal arts colleges such as Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio and Carleton College in Minnesota and smaller campuses of larger universities, such the University of North Carolina–Asheville.

At the larger R1 and R2 universities, a professor can be hired to do only research, without ever having teaching responsibilities. At these more undergraduate-focused schools, on the other hand, you can carry out a serious research program but teaching tends to play a larger role. In some cases, teaching may be your major responsibility. Though this can vary quite a bit from school to school, as I wrote in a previous article about primarily undergraduate institutions.

Undergraduate schools in larger institutions

Some R1 and R2 institutions have smaller liberal arts schools within them. One example of this is Emory University’s Oxford College, where students get a small-liberal-arts-school experience within a larger university. Barnard College, which has partnered with Columbia University, is another example.

Community and junior colleges

Community and junior colleges are typically two-year colleges that grant associate’s degrees. Students might transfer to a four-year college after graduating or go directly into the workforce.

Professors at community colleges typically focus entirely on teaching and do not carry out research, though it isn’t impossible to do research at a community college.

Public vs. private

In each of the categories described above is another division: whether the institution is public or private.

Public colleges and universities get the majority of their funding from the government. Private colleges and universities get their funding through donations, endowments and tuition.

If you are a job seeker interested in the quality of research or teaching carried out at an institution, whether a school is public or private doesn’t make a difference. The biggest difference is on the student’s end, with tuition at public institutions generally being lower, especially if the student lives in the same state.

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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