Birkbeck is a world-class research and teaching institution, and a vibrant centre of academic thought. Since 1920 it has been the University London's specialist provider of taught courses in the evening that allow working people to continue their education. Concomitant with the cultural and economic vibrancy of London's population, Birkbeck is one of the largest providers of postgraduate education in the UK.

Research at Birkbeck is, however, a full-time, daytime activity just like the other colleges. Outstanding BBSRC relevant research is focused in two departments – Biological Sciences and Psychological Sciences.

Biological Sciences has a worldwide reputation in structural biology and molecular microbiology. Structural Biology in the department rests on the strong foundations laid by JD Bernal, who pioneered the application of X-ray crystallography to determine protein structure and who set up a Biomolecular Research Laboratory at Birkbeck in 1948. Building on this early start, the department has been a leading centre for mechanism of biochemical processes for many decades, and counts a dozen Fellows of the Royal Society among its current and former staff (including other noted figures such as Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug). Since the late 1990s graduate research activities have been carried out jointly with UCL. Staff and students of the department are members of the joint UCL/Birkbeck Institute for Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB), with the Biological Sciences department hosting the Institute's world-class facilities for x-ray crystallography, biophysics, and cryo-electron microscopy, and delivering most of its Masters-level training in structural biology and bioinformatics. The ISMB is a world leader in the investigation of macromolecular nanomachines, the multiprotein complexes that drive most of the cell biological processes.

Psychological Sciences is a centre of vibrant research and teaching whose history can be traced to the beginnings of the scientific study of the subject in the UK over a century ago. It is among the handful of highest rated psychology departments in the UK with tremendous research strength, particularly in brain and cognitive development, neuroimaging (in a joint Institute with UCL) and in computational modelling of cognitive processes. BabyLab is widely known, from a variety of television and news features, for its work on cognitive development and autism (or for being "where scientists experiment on babies brains" as Wired magazine would have it).