May 1 is a new holiday on the college calendar: National Candidate Reply Date, also referred to by many as Decision Day. That's the day by which more than 2 million students must decide where to go to college and tell the school of their choice. Some students will be choosing between a college that focuses on teaching and a university that emphasizes research. And many will think that a teaching college would always be the obvious best choice. After all, you're going there to learn, so why wouldn't you go to a college that emphasizes teaching? But there are some real advantages to the research university that might be worth your while to consider. Here are 10:
1. Top researchers can also be top teachers. It's often thought that professors who are serious about their research programs couldn't care less about teaching and/or are lousy teachers. Instead, many researchers carry their passion for the field into the classroom and are inspirational teachers and role models. Also, professors who do research generally understand the field better than ones who don't, so they can explain the material better to students—especially when it comes to more advanced courses and topics.
2. Courses at research universities often incorporate the latest research. Faculty who are engaged in research are more in touch with breaking developments in their field. And they're more likely to include this material—including discoveries too recent to make it into the textbook—in their classes. This makes for more exciting and up-to-date courses that are a whole lot more interesting than courses that are a remix of what's already in the book.
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3. The faculty can be more energized. Faculty at research universities are often making genuine discoveries and receiving recognition for their work. Large salaries, prizes, publications in distinguished journals or at prestigious presses, participation in international conferences or workshops: all of these mean prestige to the professor and, simply, feeling good about him or herself. These good feelings can carry over to the classroom when the professor feels genuine excitement and meaning in sharing with the students what he or she has discovered.
4. There is the possibility of internships and collaborative research with experts. Studies have shown that some of the best educational experiences for college students take place not in the classroom, but in their interactions with professors outside the classroom, especially in the context of shared research activities. Such collaborative projects provide chances for students to themselves become researchers, and even sometimes coauthors of published papers or copresenters at conferences, either of which is a major feather in anyone's cap.
5. There tend to be more—and more fine-grained—majors. The large size of the research university may have its drawbacks, but one advantage is a larger faculty and a larger range of disciplines taught. This means that students get a lot more choices of majors. For example, at the University of California—Berkeley, you can choose from more than 300 majors and programs. Moreover, within a single field of inquiry, you'll find many fine-tuned variations: in the biological sciences at Berkeley, you can choose Integrative Biology, Biochemistry, Genetics, Immunology, Cell Biology, and Neurobiology. And then there are more obscure majors, too: you'll find Demography, Epidemiology, Media Studies, Folklore, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual and Transgender Studies, and Native American Studies. At a small college, on the other hand, you might find only 25 to 30 majors to choose from. Choice is good.
6. There are state-of-the-art facilities for research publication. Research universities have to provide top facilities so that their faculty can properly accomplish the research required of them. That means that the university has to invest in larger libraries and other equipment needed for research in various fields. In addition, the research faculty are able to, and at most research universities are expected to, win various kinds of grants from government, business and other agencies to pay for research costs. All this benefits the undergraduates who can then have access to the fancy lasers, rapid prototyping machines, or whatever else the faculty is playing with.
7. You can have contact with graduate students. The fact that research universities devote significant attention to training graduate students is often seen in a very negative light. Some people complain about grad students getting the bulk of faculty attention and, worse, about grad students doing lots of the teaching in undergraduate courses—and being inexperienced, bad teachers to boot. We don't deny that these can be problems. But undergraduate students can benefit from hanging out with grad students. Often grad students are willing to mentor and advise undergraduates about careers, and, yes, graduate school. And their devotion and serious involvement with learning sets a great example for undergrads to follow.
8. You get a chance to take graduate courses—if you're up to it. For a student who is really interested and serious about a field, there is nothing more rewarding than taking a graduate course. These courses are more advanced and specialized than any undergraduate course, and they give you a taste of what it's like to play in the big leagues. And this can be an opportunity for students to make the critical leap from just mastering a field to actually advancing the field through their own discoveries.
9. You could get an advantage for admission to graduate and professional schools. Graduate and professional schools tend to think that students from research universities will be better trained than students coming from smaller colleges, especially when the research universities have faculty members who are well known in the field. Graduate and professional schools put extra faith in letters of recommendation that come from professors whose names they know. It's the top researchers in the field who have the best name recognition.
10. You can network with distinguished and well-placed people in the field. Researchers generally have great connections and can help their students get networked with key players in the field. These days many researchers will take students with them to conferences and introduce them around. This is a great way to get established in a field and launch yourself in a job or career.
One final note: We do not mean to suggest here that no faculty teaching at colleges are engaged in research and that every faculty member at a research university is doing research. There are fantastic researchers who work at colleges, and faculty at research universities who view tenure as their license to loaf. Nevertheless, in general, research universities expect faculty to spend a large portion of their time on research, while colleges generally expect less research.
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