ISP Handbook


The Independent Study Project has long been a cornerstone of the elective curriculum at the UCSD School of Medicine.

The UCSD School of Medicine seeks to "prepare physicians who are scientifically expert, clinically astute, responsive to community problems, and compassionate toward clinical needs." Since its inception, the curriculum at UCSD has included an independent academic project as a requirement for graduation, as a mechanism for achieving these goals.

  • The ISP allows the student to exercise independent creativity in a significant part of his or her education. This develops the active, self-directed thought and problem solving ability necessary for the practice of modern medicine thus complementing the core and elective courses.
  • The ISP emphasizes process over outcome. Medical education is a lifelong process; the ISP provides opportunities for the development of self-directed learning habits which will benefit the student in his or her future career as a physician.
  • The ISP provides the opportunity to develop rational and scholarly methods of investigating new information.
  • The ISP is an opportunity to approach a specific topic in depth, in contrast to the core curriculum which emphasizes learning in breadth.
  • Because the ISP is a period of concentrated study, it supports the formation of a close relationship between a faculty member and a student.

What is an Independent Study Project?

The project should involve original, independent, creative, and scholarly activity by the student.

  • The project may address a specific scientific question, or involve the creation of a new methodology in medical teaching or patient care. The project must address a specific issue or question. The project itself, the rationale, and the goal(s) must be clearly defined. The definition of specific goals at the outset will facilitate the development of an appropriate strategy for completing the project. 
  • The project should attempt something new. A project can be considered new by asking a novel question, proposing an innovative method for answering an old question, developing and/or testing a new tool for medical instruction or patient care, or development of a new community service for patient care or instruction. 
  • While there is nearly no restriction on the subject matter contained in the Independent Study Project, there must be some relevance to medicine, health care delivery, or other area of medical inquiry. With a little creativity, the possibilities are virtually limitless. Subject areas of previous suitable projects have ranged from biochemistry to public health issues. 
  • Work done prior to matriculation is admissible as a starting point for additional study while the student is enrolled in the School of Medicine, but cannot stand alone as an acceptable Independent Study Project.
  • The Electives Committee must approve the ISP proposal BEFORE the student starts to work on the ISP.


Acceptable ISPs will fall into one of the following broad categories. Students may choose a project in which their work and a thoughtful, comprehensive analysis of its outcome become the ISP. The examples given below are intended to give students and faculty general ideas of what will be considered acceptable ISP activities.

  1. Scientific Research
    • Hypothesis-driven research project on a clinical or basic science issue.
  2. Community Service/Leadership. Such a project requires that the student develop and implement a health-related service or program in the community. Simply spending hours performing community service will not satisfy the goals of an ISP. Examples of acceptable projects include:
    • Working with a social service agency to organize and execute a tuberculosis screening and intervention program among homeless residents of San Diego County.
    • Organizing and developing AIDS awareness and prevention services (clinical and/or educational) to groups of high risk adolescents in the community (e.g.,gang members, school dropouts, etc.)
    • Working with the legislature to change or implement laws or programs relating to medicine.
  3. Medical Education. These projects consist of developing effective educational materials for medical students and/or patients. Examples of acceptable projects include:
  4. Analysis of a Scientific or Medical Problem
    • An in-depth analysis and comprehensive review of a specific topic (more than 30 references). An interpretation of the status of the issue and an analysis of the shortcomings are required. Merely paraphrasing the literature is not acceptable.
    • Such a review must be suitable for publication as a review in a scholarly journal.
  5. The Focused Clinical Multidisciplinary ISP (FCM-ISP)
    • Designed for senior students, the FCM-ISP is a two-month project completed in the clinical setting. Students choose a specific area in clinical medicine that includes multiple disciplines. The goal is synthesis and refinement of knowledge and experiences resulting in enhanced expertise. (Click on the "FCM-ISP" link for further explanation.)
  6. Other
    • A student may propose a project that does not fit into the above categories. The project must meet the ISP goals. It is recommended that the student consult the Chair of the Electives Committee for advice regarding such projects.

At the completion of the ISP, a written summary of the findings, product, or conclusions will be given to the ISP committee chair and members for evaluation.  This document should include a description of the project, a rationale for the project, how the project was done, and what was achieved.  It is anticipated that many of these reports will be disseminated to a relevant audience.  This could be achieved by publication of a report in a scientific journal, presentation at a scientific meeting, presentation on a World Wide Web site, or by making the product available to patients or doctors through clinics or other students through MedEDTech.  The format of the project's final form must be approved by the student's ISP committee.

Students can submit more than one Independent Study Project, if able to complete them and still satisfy all other requirements for graduation.

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