Choosing student-selected components

Dr Caroline Elton is an occupational psychologist and former Head of the Careers Unit at London Deanery. In February 2014 she set up Career Planning for Doctors/Dentists.

Student-selected components (SSCs) – or sometimes SSMs or SSUs – are optional modules that extend your experience and interests beyond the core curriculum.  Modules cover a huge variety of subjects, and often explore disciplines outside clinical medicine. So how can you choose the ones that are right for you?

Anatomy. Medical Informatics. The role of film in representing mental illness. Measuring health-related quality of life. These are just a taster of the kind of SSCs on offer from medical schools that you might be mulling over, wondering which would be right for you.

When choosing your topics, I recommend using the '3 Cs'. This is a useful series of considerations that can help guide your decision-making.


The undergraduate curriculum is content-heavy and academics are constantly reviewing the timetable to incorporate developments in medical knowledge. So a principle to bear in mind when choosing an SSC is which topics might provide a balance to your diet of core medical subjects.

If you love reading, 'literature and medicine' may provide the sort of counterbalance you are craving. If you have a flair for the arts, you might be lucky enough to be at a school that offers 'visualising the body in art' or 'medical illustration'.


You might be surprised that this is a consideration but there are many studies that suggest medical students tend to be less empathetic on exit than they were on entry. Undoubtedly practising doctors need to maintain a degree of emotional detachment so they are not overwhelmed by the suffering and distress of seriously ill patients and their families. But they also need to retain their capacity for empathy and compassion, and this is where the choice of SSC comes in.

Junior doctors often tell me how the pre-clinical years in medical school seem removed from the patient experience. In contrast, SSCs on topics such as ethics or humanities bring the patient experience centre stage.

3. Career

You might have thought that this would come first, but I have kept it until last because I don't think it should be the overriding principle.

There is a qualitative difference between observing and taking part, and exposure to different specialties as a junior doctor (rather than as a medical student) provides better quality career data on which to base a future career choice.

But it is also true that experience in specialties that are barely covered by the undergraduate curriculum (such as radiology, clinical genetics or ophthalmology) can open your eyes to options that might otherwise get overlooked. And while I don't think specialty choices should be made on the basis of an SSC alone, if they expose you to potential career options that is definitely a good thing.

So perhaps there is one further 'C' to consider. Choose an SSC that you are truly 'curious' about and you will learn something of value from the experience.

Further reading

Medical student-selected components

About SSCs

In 1993 the GMC first published Tomorrow's Doctors. One of its principal recommendations was that 'the core curriculum should be augmented by a series of special study modules which allow students to study areas of particular interest to them, that provide them with insights into scientific method and the discipline of research, and engender an approach to medicine that is questioning and self-critical.1

In the latest edition of Tomorrow's Doctors (2009) the GMC states that 'SSCs must be an integral part of the curriculum' and 'the curriculum must allow for student choice for a minimum of 10% of course time'.2

Students can take modules on a wide variety of subjects, often exploring disciplines outside clinical medicine.


1 Tomorrow's Doctors, GMC, December 1993, page 23.

2 Tomorrow's Doctors, GMC, September 2009, page 50.

This page was correct at publication on 15/11/2013. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.


Login to comment

Be the first to comment