Becoming a patent agent isn't really up there with "pilot" in the childhood dream stakes. Like most people in the profession I stumbled upon it, but now that I'm here I can say that I've definitely made a fantastic career choice.
After the monotony of the short period of laboratory-based work that I undertook as part of my degree, I decided that a career in the lab was not for me and that my future lay in the business world. As much as I wanted out of the lab, however, I was equally keen to keep a foothold in science. I had really enjoyed the theory that I had learnt over the years and was keen to use it in some way in my career. I also wanted to work toward further qualifications, and in hindsight it's just as well because the requirement to study for and pass exams is definitely one of the most demanding aspects of the early stages of this career.
Entry into the profession requires a good honours degree in a science subject. A PhD can be helpful, but is by no means essential. Some firms view it as an advantage, while others like to employ new graduates, who are considered to have an up-to-date knowledge of a broad range of fields of science. For some firms a working knowledge of French or German is also an advantage due to the potential of dealing with documents in these languages should you wish to do pan-European work.
Landing a training place is fairly difficult and you have to be persistent and, dare I say it, lucky. But getting a job does not mean that all the obstacles are behind you. There is a significant series of hurdles of which every new trainee should be aware-- qualification exams! To qualify as a Chartered Patent Agent in the UK you must pass seven foundation and four advanced exams. Quite a tough load. The examinations are held every November in London, with most candidates working their way through all the foundation exams before moving on to the finals.
Generally it takes a minimum of 4 years to become qualified in the UK. Additionally, most UK patent agents also seek qualification as European Patent Attorneys. This involves sitting a further four exams, held annually in March. The European exams can only be sat once you have practised in the profession for 3 years.
Be warned, the exams are tough and failure rates are high, especially for the UK advanced papers. One notorious recent paper had a pass rate of just 14%. Further, whether or not you want to spend most evenings and weekends between September and November studying should be an important consideration before embarking on this career path.
Training is carried out on the job. Most trainees work directly under a qualified patent agent who is responsible for both assigning your workload and providing the instruction and guidance required for doing it. Most firms also have an internal programme of tutorials or study days that teach the more theoretical side of the job and further help in preparing for the exams.
The rewards for toughing out the years of training and exams are great. Firstly, the day-to-day work itself is varied and interesting. Essentially, as patent agents we provide advice to our clients on negotiating the nuances of the patent laws so that they will obtain commercially relevant and important monopoly rights that will serve to protect their inventions and products from being copied by their competitors.
Scientists are employed as patent agents for their understanding of the inventions that they are dealing with, be they vaccines or heart valves, surfactants or agrochemicals. There is very little "treadmill" work in this profession. Every invention is different, and behind every invention there is a different inventor to correspond with, or a different company to build a relationship with.
Direct interaction with clients is an important part of the job. It is not unusual for a trainee, once reasonably experienced, to advise clients on the basics of the strategy that they should adopt to protect and enforce their patent and other intellectual property rights. This is one aspect of the work that really highlights the "real-world" application of the job. Patent and other monopoly rights such as trademarks are of huge importance to many companies, as they serve to give an edge over their rivals in an increasingly competitive business world.
For the majority of people, remuneration is an important factor when considering any career, and the profession on the whole fails to disappoint. Starting salaries can be reasonably low, but as you learn more of what the jobs entails, and have sat a few exams and generally become more of an assistance than a liability around the office, your salary will quickly increase. Once qualified, the world is your oyster. The high demand for patent attorneys in the UK has led to a situation where, in many cases, you can effectively "name your price".
Of course, it's not all about money and, often, working environment and location are important considerations too. Although the majority of the profession is based in London, there are thriving and expanding practices in virtually every city in the UK. Further choice is offered by the opportunity to work either in-house, as part of a dedicated patent department within a large company, or in private practice where you will advise a whole range of clients from the proverbial "wacky inventor" to multinational blue chip companies.
In summary, the profession is obscure, but lucrative, and a bit of persistence through the initial qualifying exams will be more than rewarded by an exciting and varied career.
* Gordon Stark completed a BSc in immunology at the University of Edinburgh before becoming a technical assistant (trainee patent agent) with Glasgow-based patent agents Murgitroyd & Company in June 1998. To date he has passed seven of the 11 UK exams that he needs to become a fully-fledged patent agent.