Alternative Career Paths: Is a Career in Patent Law Right for You?


Being a student in the biological sciences, you are likely most exposed to career opportunities within a laboratory setting. In my experience, it was difficult to navigate other career options until I left the academic environment. I heard from multiple professors that the only options I would have with a master’s degree would be as a research assistant or research associate.


However, this is not the case.


Once I began to look outside academia, I discovered that there is a variety of non-laboratory positions available to science graduates, whether you have a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD degree. This 5-part blog series will cover careers in patent law, science policy, science communication, scientific consulting, and clinical research.


Part 1: Patent Law


What is Patent Law?


When a company, scientist, or businessman invents a new technology, they can patent it. This means that the inventor has the sole rights to the invention and is allowed to sell it for twenty years. They can also license their invention to another individual or company for a fee. After twenty years, the technology is made public and can be used by anyone. In order to patent an invention, the inventor must first submit an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This is where the various careers in patent law come into play.


The Path to Patent Law


There are different routes you can take to land a career in patent law with a science background. The three main career options are:

  • Patent attorney
  • Patent agent
  • Patent examiner

A patent attorney assists clients with patent applications and practices law. In order to become a patent attorney, you must attend law school and get a law degree. If you want to work on scientific technology patents, then your application will be much stronger if you majored in a science (see here for more information).

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Patent agents are licensed by the USPTO to assist clients with applications. Individuals who want to become a patent agent need to pass the patent bar exam. You do not need a law degree or legal training to take the patent bar: all you need is a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering (for more information, click here and here). Patent agent positions are competitive; thus, many law firms have a strong preference for individuals with a graduate degree. Outside of scientific knowledge, it is important for a patent agent to be social and personable since they help bring clients to the law firm and work closely with them to develop a strong patent application.


Patent examiners are federal employees hired to review patent applications for the USPTO. You need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering to qualify for a patent examiner position (see https://www.uspto.gov/jobs/become-patent-examiner for more information).


How Do My Scientific Skills Transfer?


Drs. Carmen Chow and Henry Shikani completed their respective PhDs in biomedical science and are now working as patent agents. In addition to providing me with the information above, they also discussed some skills they gained during their graduate training that helped them in their new career:


Communication Skills


You develop strong oral and written communication skills in a PhD program by writing papers and giving presentations. You also learn to communicate your research effectively to individuals of different specializations.


As a patent agent, you will be writing patent applications and contracts covering a wide range of scientific topics. Being able to communicate complex scientific concepts to someone of a different background is a tough but essential skill in this field. For instance, patent examiners may not be specialized in the field of science directly related to the patent application. Thus, applications need to be scientifically accurate, but also accessible and devoid of any jargon. Patent agents also need good oral communication skills, as they regularly present to potential clients, run meetings to discuss pending patent applications, and coach the client to explain their science effectively.


Organization


In a PhD program, you learn time management and organization skills from managing various research projects, class work, and paper / manuscript writing, among other responsibilities. As a patent attorney, agent, or examiner, you will be handling multiple applications simultaneously. You may be handling five applications one month, while in other months, you could be handling up to 200. This can vary by job position and law firm, but organization is essential to managing these applications and meeting deadlines.


Analytical Skills and Attention to Detail


Analytical skills are arguably the most crucial skillset that a science graduate student can develop during their training. Importantly, this expertise also translates to the field of patent law. In all of the positions described above, you need to be able to deconstruct scientific information and think critically about the applications of an invention. It is also necessary to pay close attention to detail to ensure applications are accurate and free of errors.

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The Pros of Patent Law


There are various pros to working in patent law. Here are some of our interviewees’ favorite parts about working in the field:


Learning About New Technologies

  • You are at the forefront of the latest discoveries and technologies, so you have the privilege of being one of the first people in the world to learn about these inventions. • Working in patent law allows you to learn about different inventions across all fields of science and engineering, unlike in a laboratory or academic career where you become an expert in one subfield of science and devote most of your career to it.

A Multidisciplinary Career

  • Patent law bridges science, law, and business. It’s a unique combination of very different fields and you gain valuable experience in all three.

Meeting and Working with Innovators

  • As a patent attorney or patent agent, you will meet and work with some of the world’s most innovative scientists and engineers. You will enjoy getting to know clients from distinct backgrounds and establish valuable connections as well.

I hope this article was informative on the career options available for scientists in patent law. Like many of my peers, I wasn’t really sure what patent law comprised, or what types of graduate degrees were applicable. But there are actually multiple options, and all of them complement the skills we develop during graduate school.


My next article in the series is an in-depth look at science policy - stay tuned for more information!


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