5 things you need to know before doing an ISM

By Samara Gan

Considering doing an ISM next semester? Need some inspiration to help you get started? Not sure where to start?  In the second part of our ISM series, we interviewed a few seniors who have been through the blood, sweat, and tears of it all to help us navigate the treacherous (and sometimes very confusing) ISM journey.


People say that doing an ISM is a daunting and challenging experience that is unique to every individual; not one ISM is the same. Well they are definitely right. The Cinnamon Roll talked to some students who have recently partook in an ISM, to share with you their stories and some important lessons from their journey.

Jakkarin Sae-Tiew, a Year 2 Engineering student who took an ISM last semester, is the youngest of our interviewees. His ISM was initially focused on studying and analysing data to reveal the transportation trends of the elderly in Singapore. However, things took a dramatic turn near the end of the semester and he had to change the direction of his ISM two weeks before deadline.

Claire Chew, a Year 3 Economics student, took her ISM in her second semester of her second year in USP. She worked together with Yuan Zhi Er (Year 3, Accountancy) on a project surrounding the course allocation mechanisms, using NUS CORS as a case study. Her joint project consisted mainly of analysing existing literature on bidding systems used in other colleges, and applying those theories to the NUS CORS system.

Rachel Oh, a Year 3 Life Sciences student, also took her ISM in her Year 2 Semester 2. Her ISM was based on seagrass restoration, a topic which visibly excited her when she delivered a presentation on it during last year’s ISM showcase. Her ISM required her to work with researchers from the Netherlands and conduct experiments on sediment stabilisation and seagrass restoration methods in Pulau Semakau (southern Singapore) over the course of three months.

Here are five important things to note when doing your own ISM.


1. Do something you are interested in

Jakkarin said: “I feel like it is important to choose a topic that you are truly curious about. The mysterious answers to the central question of your project will drive you to keep thinking and finding new perspectives and solutions,”

Rachel said: “For those who have no idea what to do: read! Read about your interests and read about what your professors are interested in and researching on.

“The faculty websites have all their research interests written down. Some professors even have their own website! What you are looking for are some overlaps in interests. And when you find something cool, keep reading on. Find out what other publications are talking about them. If not, ask your professor out for coffee or a quick meeting. Discuss with them your interests and maybe a idea will pop into your head during the meeting!

“And if you’re not ready to discuss with a prof just yet, talk to your friends! Bouncing off ideas is a great way to identify your interest and if you’re lucky, a research question.”

In terms of brainstorming, Claire suggested: “Sit yourself down and brainstorm all the things you are interested in exploring. Or you could keep ISM in mind and whenever something interesting pops up, write the ideas down.

“Make ISM a topic of discussion with your friends, you could find friends who share the same interest with you and you can do a group ISM together. And always have back-up ideas in the unfortunate event you cannot find a professor.

“Lastly, don’t be afraid to venture out of topics of your own major!”

2. Ideas can come from anywhere

Sometimes ideas for ISMs may come from the people around you, especially from professors and researchers who are already working on a project.

Rachel said that her ISM project was part of a larger seagrass research project that her lab had been working on for a few years.

“I was previously working on another seagrass project and came to know the researchers heading the research. They introduced the restoration project to me then and I took it on because restorative ecology was a topic that interested me and something I find fundamental in understanding conservation in today’s context where we have already lost so much biodiversity,” she said.

She later discussed the details of her ISM with her mentors and other relevant researchers.

Rachel Working

Rachel working on her seagrass restoration project. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Oh)

Claire was approached by Yuan Zhi to work on a joint-ISM about game theory, which later evolved to an ISM about analysing CORS. “As an Econs major, it was an easy decision because I knew I could put my knowledge to good use,” she said.

The pair later had to make changes to their topic after discussing with their supervisor.

“It wasn’t the kind of ISM I had hoped for but I thought it was reasonable that we analysed the theories because we didn’t have an idea of the mechanisms behind bidding systems that exist in Economics. It was definitely a good start,” she added.

Even if the topic you eventually decide upon is not what you initially expected, it will not be too far off from your topic of interest.

Jakkarin’s topic was one which his supervisor was working on. He was told about the research opportunity by a senior in the first week of the semester.

He said: “It is quite true that usually we are just doing the ISM to help the professor with his/her own project. But do not have such attitude that ‘we are just saikang warriors for my professor’s research’.

“Instead, try to suggest something innovative, fresh, and for which you are personally curious. Maybe your professor was indeed looking for people to do the hard and boring works, but instead you may come up with something that can push that area of study to new horizons.”

3. Prepare, prepare, prepare!

Jakkarin said that he wished he had more time to prepare for his ISM.

As a student taking his ISM in Year 2 Semester 1, Jakkarin found that he was not equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to work on his ISM.

“In the first few weeks of the project, I was mostly clueless even with some of the simple and elementary data analytics methods and tools, and to break apart this humongous dataset required more advanced understanding of statistics, programming and analytics. I had to spend a big chunk of the semester on literature review and self-learning to even start doing anything to the actual dataset.

“From this experience, I would recommend not to take up an ISM that requires much technical knowledge and experience without extensive preparation as a Year 2 student, especially for engineering students,” he warned.

He also stressed the importance of preparing for your ISM well in advance.

“If my ISM was prepared during holiday, we would have spotted the issue with the data set and taken measures to solve it before we officially start the project,” said Jakkarin.

His ISM was initially aimed at investigating travel patterns of the elderly in Singapore. However, in Week 10 of his ISM, he had to change his ISM entirely as his data set was flawed.

With only two weeks left to complete his project, he could only produce a descriptive report of a completely different data set, which he felt was “far from satisfactory for the level of rigor required” for a USP ISM.  

He said: “But with the short amount of time I was given, this was the only option I had to produce a passable report.”

Rachel said: “If anything, I wished I knew the importance of planning ahead and checking that with seniors/mentors early, and the art of managing real-time stress. But it was fine that I didn’t know that beforehand, because I learnt it from my ISM so it was all good.”

Claire said that it was important to be aware of the steps needed to prepare for an ISM, “I wish I knew the steps to take to getting my ISM sorted out before even embarking on the ISM work. We didn’t know that we had to find a professor and have a proposal ready even before week 1. Thus the week before school started was a mad rush.

“Also, difficult faculties had different criteria for ISM. In my case, [the] Economics department will only allow me to double-count if I submitted a separate proposal from Yuan Zhi. However if I were to do a purely USP-ISM, I could write a joint paper with him. Yuan Zhi couldn’t double count but he had to write a separate paper from me just because of my double-counting requirement.”

Claire and Yuan Zhi with their notes

“This is the product of us racking our brains for our ISM paper till the wee hours of the night,” said Claire (left), together with her ISM partner Yuan Zhi (right). (Photo courtesy of Claire Chew)

ISM preparation usually requires an ISM proposal to be submitted to the respective faculties, including USP.

Students who wish to double-count their ISMs (for both USP and their home faculty) will need to submit their proposals to both faculties. Group ISMs also have certain requirements to meet in terms of proposal submissions.

Claire said that working on a group-ISM allowed the pair to take advantage of each other’s strengths, knowledge, and skills in the research process.

“I was glad to have done my ISM with Yuan Zhi because he provided an alternative perspective to analysing and getting things done… Yuan Zhi did the theoretical calculations on Excel while I did the CORS analysis with STATA,” she said.

4. Plan, plan, plan!

Rachel said: “Plan out a timeline for your work, plan out a checklist on things you need get done and most importantly, plan for screw ups!

“You don’t have to follow it religiously because we all know that things will always unexpectedly go in many different directions but, at least when something happens, you are aware of the various possible solutions.

“And if you are clear on the important pieces of data that you need (because you made a checklist), you can be sure that you have collected all the data you need. So, even if your ISM gives you many headaches, you can still answer your question thoroughly because well, you planned.”

5. It will be worthwhile

Despite their stressful experiences, the seniors expressed interest in doing another ISM. Jakkarin said: “Despite [the ISM] being a completely train wreck, I learned from this module much more than I did from my entire Year 1.

“When I knew that I was in trouble and I was so lost about how to even start, I was motivated to learn about all kinds of things to help me move the project forward. In the end, I learned about many tools and techniques that helped me significantly in other projects in my Industrial and Systems Engineering modules.

“Although I am not satisfied with how the project turned out, I am very glad that I took part in this journey and learned so much from it.”

Rachel said that working on an ISM offered her many opportunities, including learning more about the work of research, going outdoors for work, and learning more about herself.

She said: “Despite the challenges and minor/major frustrations/stress that came along with it, the lessons I learnt from my ISM will stay with me for a long time. I learn best from experiences and from working out a problem on my own. I may not get a learning experience like this if I took a regular module with the lecturer curating the resources for me.

“It was the independent nature of the ISM that pushed me get into learning how to work things out on my own first and how to ask for help when I needed it. Plus! I get to work in the most beautiful office-ish!”

Semakau at night (Rachel's last fieldwork)

Semakau at night during Rachel’s last day of fieldwork. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Oh)

While Claire said that she would love to take on another ISM, but she does not have the time for it.

“For now I will occupy my mind with my upcoming Economics Honours Thesis. Ever since completing ISM I’ve been looking forward to start on my Thesis journey though it’ll be different from ISM in terms of criteria and rigour.

“I would say ISM was my stepping stone to doing a research, a mini-thesis even! I’m really glad USP made this a requirement although many, including myself, dreaded this criteria prior to doing ISM.”


For more information about USP ISM requirements and how you can prepare for your ISM, check out The Cinnamon Roll’s Semi-definitive Guide to ISMs.