PEERING INTO HIS OWN FUTURE FROM HIS LAB BENCH IN THE NORTHEASTERN U.S., LARRY, A FINAL-YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT, IS PRETTY SURE HE KNOWS WHAT HE WANTS TO DO WITH HIS Ph.D. BUT DO YOU?

A wise career choice requires consideration of both the positive and negative aspects of a particular career path, and last month, I took a healthy step back to assess my journey to date. Since then, I have revisited the information I collected over the past year in an effort to directly address the lingering doubts I uncovered. In so doing, I discovered that of all the data in my virtual career notebook, those derived from informational interviews provided me with not only the most detailed picture of what I was contemplating, but also the most compelling evidence that I was indeed heading in the right direction.

What follows is a distillation of those data--a fictional composite derived from several informational interviews. All names have, of course, been changed to protect the innocent....

The Scene: A popular watering hole at 5:30 p.m., rapidly filling with smiling, professional types wearing the standard Gap khaki uniform. Judging by the lack of defeated expressions and abundance of healthy complexions, I'm likely to be the only academic scientist in the joint. My contact enters and we exchange pleasantries and order beers. Ian is currently employed as a technical specialist at a large local law firm, has just completed his first year of law school and is, like the other late afternoon patrons, looking healthy and happy, albeit a bit fatigued. When the beers arrive, Ian offers to pay and I mount a feeble protest. He laughs, claiming he has to find some way to spend the big sack of cash he carries around and I, to my horror, catch myself glancing under the table. Ian laughs again and reminds me that not too long ago he was a poverty-stricken graduate student as well.

Ian: OK, so what do you need to know about patent law?

Larry: Well, I suppose the first step is to get a better handle on what you do every day.

Ian: The content of my work actually varies from day to day, and sometimes from hour to hour, depending on the project and what needs to be done. When I started out, most of my work was pretty basic: preparing nucleic acid sequence listings, sifting through papers and other documents submitted by the inventors, searching the literature for related topics. As I grew more comfortable with the law firm environment and the overall process, I moved on to more meaty projects, such as drafting the background and other parts of the patent body. Recently, I've even had the opportunity to act in an advisory capacity in a litigation case. As far as I'm concerned, the constant changes in task and subject matter are among the most attractive features of this job. I also have a lot of choice in terms of what projects I take on, which helps keep me interested and excited about what I'm doing.

Larry: Ugh, I feel like I've been working on the same three proteins for 5 years ... uh, wait ... I HAVE been working on them that long! So, I think it's safe to say I'm craving a little variety in my job. Tell me a little more about how your day flows. Are hours predictable, or do you find yourself pulling late nights furiously preparing documents like the lawyers in re-runs of "LA Law"?

Ian: Although litigation work can be occasionally unpredictable, patent preparation and prosecution tend to be pretty steady work. Most days are the standard 9 to 5, with the occasional longer evening when stuff needs to be done for a specific deadline. The flow of the day is a lot different than that in the lab, though. The system here is "billable hours," meaning that whenever you're on the clock, you need to be doing something for the client being billed. That means a lot less time surfing the Web while gels are running, or samples are spinning. You need to be efficient.

Larry: So you find the workload tolerable?

Ian: Sure. I'm required to bill 1800 hours per year, which is equivalent to 35 to 37 hours every week when holidays and vacations are factored in. That means I need to bill most of the hours I'm in the office, which hasn't been too difficult so far. Consider this from the grad student perspective: I've never worked a weekend and have only stayed late on a handful of occasions. Going to law school has put a damper on the overall quality of life, though.

Larry: This actually brings us to one of my biggest concerns: What are your impressions of law school with a full-time job?

Ian: Frankly, it stinks. I have class 4 nights a week, on top of my full-time schedule. And I still need to find time to study. That and the long commute make it difficult to spend as much time with my family as I would like. The subject matter is interesting and not overly difficult, but the lack of free time really drains my enthusiasm. I did make excellent grades, and the first year is supposed to be the worst, so I'm hoping I can throttle down the study habits a bit next semester.

Larry: Do I sense a note of regret in this story?

Ian: Absolutely not. I wasn't happy doing research, and I love the challenge of patent law. Plus, the financial rewards are substantial. I know you won't ask, so I'll tell you: 65 to 85K, plus law school tuition and a bonus. There's an online database that provides more detailed information, if you're interested. I may complain about law school stress, but the plain truth is that I would do it again in an instant.

Larry: Sounds great to me so far! So are there opportunities available? What are the long-term prospects?

Ian: Right now, we have more work than we can handle, but the slowing economy may change that. A lot of firms hire in waves when they get new clients or look to expand their intellectual property practice, so don't be dismayed if you can't find an opening right away. Long-term, I think the biotech and pharmaceutical industries will continue to grow, and intellectual property will be as critical to the success of individual companies as ever. If you can break in, I think the future is bright indeed.

Larry: Great. So what's the trick? What hints can you offer to a potential candidate?

Ian: As I mentioned, you need to be in the right place at the right time, but there are a few things you can do in the meantime to increase your odds. First and foremost, get to know people in firms. Nothing works better than having someone on the inside making a case for you. Take the patent bar and LSAT, if you can. Both show seriousness and commitment to the field that can often be lacking in scientists unsure of what they want to do away from the bench. And finish your Ph.D. That should be your first priority.

Larry: Thanks, Ian. I really appreciate all of your help. I know you need to catch your train home, so I'll let you go.

Ian: My pleasure, Larry. When you get close to finishing up, be sure to send me your CV. You never know when my boss will bring home another pile of work!

And with that, I made sure to pick up the remaining tab with my meager pile of cash and headed back to the lab with a little extra spring in my step.