Five Top Research Universities in the US

Research is a major commitment of many private and public universities in the United States, however, there is no standardized definition of a research university.

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (CCIHE), for instance, defines a “doctoral university” as an institution that awarded at least 20 research or scholarship degrees—or at least 30 professional practice doctoral degrees in two programs—during the survey year.

In the 2021 update, the CCIHE identified 279 doctoral universities, of which 146 were listed as very high research activity and 133 as high research activity, per the National Science Foundation (NSF) Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) survey. And while the CCIHE does not rank the universities, many organizations regularly publish rankings of academic research institutions based on their own methodologies.

Top Research Universities in the US

Below, we present five of the top research universities in the United States and describe the qualities that have set these institutions apart in previously published rankings. These selections are not based on any single measure, however, and thus this list does not provide objective rankings.

Harvard University

It should come as no surprise that one of the most well-known universities in the country full-stop has distinguished research programs. The private university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was founded in 1636 and tops many published rankings of academic institutions.

One measure that Harvard University far outpaces other research institutions is institutional research output, according to the Nature Index. The Nature Index ranks the research output of institutions with two metrics: article count (Count) and fractional count, also called Share.

An institution’s Count increases by one for each article that has at least one author affiliated with the institution, whereas the fractional count represents institutions’ relative contribution to an article by distributing a total Share of 1 equally among the authors.

The Nature Index table, covering December 1, 2020 through November 30, 2021, assigned Harvard a Count of 2,641 and a share of 919.07. Harvard leads by a wide margin over the second ranked Count and Share at 1,829 for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and 612.78 for Stanford University, respectively.

More recently, Harvard was number one on the “2023 Best Medical Schools: Research” list from U.S. News; the “QS World University Rankings by Subject 2022: Life Sciences & Medicine” list from Quacquarelli Symonds; and the “Best Medical Schools in the World For 2022” list from CEOWORLD Magazine.

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University, establish 1876 in Baltimore, Maryland, purports to be America’s first research university. While its research output is not the highest (ranked 17th in Count and Share), Johns Hopkins University does significantly outpace other academic institutions in research and development expenditure, according to The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NSCES), part of the NSF.

In 2020, JHU reported $3.11 billion worth of research and development expenditure, followed by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with $1.67 billion. Moreover, JHU has been ranked first in research and development expenditures every year from 2011 to 2020, with a comparably large gap over second place throughout.

For 2022, JHU was given the second place position on the aforementioned CEOWORLD Magazine and Quacquarelli Symonds lists, although the U.S. News rankings placed JHU in a three-way tie for third place alongside Columbia University in New York, New York, and University of California-San Francisco in San Francisco, California.

Stanford University

Adding to the Ivy League representatives among top research universities is Stanford University, established in 1885 near Palo Alto, California. Although MIT placed above Stanford University on the Nature Index institution research output table for article Count, Stanford University achieved a higher Share at 612.78 versus MIT’s score of 534.81—with only Harvard ahead of either institution otherwise.

Within the 2020 NSCES data, Stanford University was ranked seventh out of 449 for earned doctorates, ninth out of 298 for full-time graduate students, and 10th out of 914 for total research and development expenditures, as well as 33rd out of 589 for net square feet of research space in 2019.

Regarding 2022 rankings, Stanford University was placed at eighth, third, and sixth by U.S. News, Quacquarelli Symonds, and CEOWORLD Magazine, respectively. Methodologies differ between the three reports, but typically take into account factors such as research activity, institutional resources, selectivity, reputation, etc.

New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine

Though NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine is relatively small, sizing in the 12.6 percentile and 70th rank on the NSCES tables for 2019 research space, it has notable measures in other objective measures. For instance, NYU Grossman holds the 25th spot for total research and development expenditures and the 38th spot for earned doctorate degrees in 2020. The Nature Index institution research output calculations place the private research university at rank 24 for both Count and Share at 598 and 199.40, respectively.

Interestingly, while U.S. News gave NYU Grossman second place and CEOWORLD Magazine gave it third on their 2022 reports, the Quacquarelli Symonds rankings placed NYU Grossman all the way down at 41st for the Life Sciences & Medicine subject, a notably lower placement even after excluding global institutions placed above NYU Grossman on this particular list.

University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley)

The final selection for top research universities in the United States is University of California, Berkeley. Established in 1868 in Berkeley, California, UC Berkeley was ranked fourth for both Count and Share on the Nature Index with scores of 1,181 and 363.82, respectively.

According to the NSCES data, UC Berkeley was fourth in earned doctorates, 11th in number of full-time graduate students, 30th in total research and development expenditures, and 19th in research space.

UC Berkeley is also distinct as the only public research university on this list. Notably, Forbes’ “America’s Top Colleges 2021”—though not specific to research universities—gave UC Berkeley the number one ranking, the first public university to do so.

Top Research University Rankings

Again, all these institutions offer world-class programs, and this list is not intended to be a ranking of these universities in any objective measures. These universities were selected to highlight to the variety of methodologies and differing results when it comes to ranking the top research universities in the United States.