Student Guide to Undergraduate Research
and Creative Activity (URCA)
Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (URCA) includes scholarly, creative, and artistic activities that
lead to new knowledge,
improve problem solving capabilities,
offer original or historical theory and interpretation, or
produce art or creative performances.1
As undergraduates, students do this work under the direction of a faculty mentor. At Mercer, URCA tends to fall into three categories:
Course-based: students conduct research and/or creative activities as part of a course
Faculty-led: a student serves as an assistant on a professor’s project and is supervised by the professor
Student-led: a student works on a project of personal interest under the direction of a professor
Research and creative activities are for everyone! Whether you plan to launch your career after graduation or pursue graduate school, the skills you develop will distinguish you from your peers and prepare you for success in any environment. Some of the benefits include:
Developing mentoring relationships
Developing transferable skills like critical thinking, organization and time management, collaboration, and communication
Exploring career and graduate education options
It is never too late or too early to get started with URCA, and all Mercer undergraduates are eligible to participate. Students typically don’t begin doing URCA before their second year – after they have had time to adjust to college life – and there are opportunities to begin doing URCA as late as your senior year. It depends on your interests, your availability, your major, and the opportunities available.
URCA is, by definition, a mentored learning experience, so your professors expect to spend time training you to do the work. Students don’t typically need any prior experience with research in order to be considered, but you’ll often find that students who are further along in their major are better prepared because they have had time to do coursework that prepares them for URCA. Ultimately, each faculty mentor has different expectations and standards, and spending time investigating opportunities is the best strategy to find out how to prepare yourself for an URCA experience.
It can feel intimidating to talk to a professor, even if you’re taking one of their classes, but it’s important to recognize that your professors are here for you. The best way to approach a professor is to email them to ask for a meeting or to stop by their office during office hours. If you aren’t sure what to say, you could start by asking them about their own research. It never hurts to ask people to talk about themselves. Here’s an example of an email:
Dear Professor X,
I am interested in learning more about undergraduate research in your department, and I was hoping to talk to you about your own research. Is there a good time for me to stop by your office or schedule a Zoom? If you’re not the right person to talk to, can you please connect me with the right person?
If you don’t hear back from the professor right away, that’s okay. It does not mean they don’t want to talk to you or think you’re not qualified to do the work; it just means that they haven’t had a chance to respond to your email yet. Wait about a week, and if you don’t get a response, send a follow up email. Here’s an example:
Dear Professor X,
I wanted to follow up on an email I sent you on _____ about making an appointment to talk about undergraduate research. When is a good time for you?
The time investment varies by project, but if you are doing research outside of class (for example, serving as an undergraduate research assistant on a faculty-led project), you can expect to spend about 6-10 hours per week on the project. If you don’t think you have that much time outside of class to do URCA, you may want to consider pursuing course-based research. With this option, the research time is built into the class and is part of your homework.
Although there are occasional opportunities to be paid, undergraduates typically should not expect to be paid for research during the academic year. If you qualify for work-study financial aid, there may be specific opportunities available to you that will be posted on the Student Employment website.
There are some opportunities in the summer at Mercer for doing URCA for a stipend. One example is MURS. You can also ask your academic advisor and other professors about additional opportunities that may be available.
You are welcome to pursue URCA outside of Mercer, and there are opportunities during the summer to do URCA at programs around the country. If you’re interested in external projects, talk to your academic advisor or a faculty member for advice on identifying and evaluating opportunities. You may even be able to find an internship experience that incorporates URCA.
Students are often surprised to learn that URCA is slow and methodical, and it may be several years before any major breakthroughs occur or work is finished. Be prepared to do what may sometimes seem like tedious work, not because you’re an undergraduate but because research and creative activity can be tedious by design at times. Mercer professors work hard to include undergraduates in dissemination activities like presenting work at a conference or publishing a paper in an academic journal, but that is not a guarantee. It is important to remember that the goal of URCA is not to get your name on a paper but to learn the research and/or creative process and develop foundational skills to help you achieve your goals after graduation.
Although good grades can get you noticed, not every undergraduate researcher is at the top of their class. Professors look for students who are interested in the work, demonstrate reliability and trustworthiness, and show a willingness to learn. If you really want to participate in URCA, take the initiative to talk to your professors about your interest in doing research.
Not every undergraduate research assistant is at the top of their class. Professors look for students who are interested in the work, demonstrate reliability and trustworthiness, and show clear a willingness to learn. There is not a single set of criteria that applies to all students and all URCA projects, so the best thing to do is talk to your professors about your URCA interests.
Not at all! Don’t let your major limit you if you have interests and skills in other areas. If you find an URCA opportunity outside of your major and you aren’t sure if it’s a good fit, reach out to the project contact person to talk more about it.
Research and creative activity is for everyone and in every major. URCA looks different in different disciplines, so it is important to talk to your academic advisor and professors to find out more about what it can look like for you. So if you’re interested in doing research and you want to study something that isn’t science, you can still do URCA.
URCA is, by definition, a mentored learning experience, so your professors expect to spend time training you to do the work. Students don’t typically need any prior experience with research in order to be considered, but each project is different. Unless specific qualifications are listed for an opportunity, don’t assume you’re not a good fit. If you really want to do an URCA project, talk to the professor.
If you don’t hear back from the professor right away, that’s okay. It does not mean they don’t want to talk to you or think you’re not qualified to do the work; it just means that they haven’t had a chance to respond to your email yet. Wait about a week, and if you don’t get a response, send a follow up email or stop by their office during office hours. See the FAQs for help on writing an email to a professor.
Research and creative activities are for everyone! Whether you plan to launch your career after graduation or pursue graduate school, the skills you develop will distinguish you from your peers and prepare you for success in any environment. If you participate in URCA, you’ll develop valuable mentoring relationships and essential transferable skills like critical thinking, organization and time management, collaboration, and communication.
Know of another URCA myth that we should address on this webpage? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.