My First Interest in Patent Law

While completing my thesis research in pharmacology at the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), I am trying to gather as much information as I can on my new career interest--patent law. But it wasn't always that way.

I initially learned about patent law as a career option from my first-year laboratory rotation adviser at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. He suggested it as a possible career to a senior student in his laboratory who was exploring her options.

At that time, patent law sounded very interesting, but I did not consider it as an option for myself. As an undergraduate, I had participated in the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program--a program designed to increase the number of minorities who obtain a Ph.D. My training and my advisers had always prepared and directed me toward a career in academic or laboratory-based research. I also enjoyed the challenge of science. Therefore, in graduate school, I decided to focus on where my expertise and previous training had led me.

Pursuing My Interest

During my second year in graduate school, I chose a laboratory for my thesis research. But after a year in this lab, I decided that I was no longer interested in becoming a bench scientist. Research was still very exciting and challenging, but I wanted to find a new way to pursue my interest in pharmacology without conducting laboratory-based research. I was very apprehensive about discussing my thoughts with any other students or with my adviser--I was not sure how others would react. In graduate school, only industry careers were mentioned as an alternative to academic research careers. It wasn't necessarily that students and professors did not support other options; there was just no mention or discussion of alternatives to the bench.

My research adviser at the time was an excellent scientist, but I did not feel he was interested in advising me as his student, even before I told him of my new career plans. Instead of backing my decision to complete my Ph.D. and enter the patent law field, he suggested that I complete my master's degree and go directly to industry. He did not offer any support as a graduate student adviser, so I set out to find a new mentor.

Making the Transition

My current advisor at NIDA is very supportive of my short- and long-range goals. I am excited about my research project in his laboratory and the opportunity to learn from him and my labmates. I knew earlier that I wanted to complete my Ph.D. before leaving academic research, and I finally feel free to discuss these issues in my new environment. My current adviser is very receptive--not only to my thesis research ideas, but also to my interest in patent law. Although many of his colleagues are in scientific and academic institutions, he has offered to help me make the transition however he can. I also found that his support made it very easy to tell other committee advisers and students of my interests. Fortunately for me, my new university adviser, my thesis committee, and fellow students have been supportive as well.

Researching a Career in Patent Law

I have learned that graduate school is an independent, self-help environment. Even with a supportive group of colleagues and advisers, most of my knowledge about patent law has come from my own exploration.

Recently, I attended a seminar sponsored by the Association for Women in Science where a patent examiner from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a patent attorney from an area law firm, and a consultant at pharmaceutical company gave presentations on their respective career fields. After speaking with these women following their presentations, I became even more eager to pursue an alternative career path. I began to research my options more actively. I found a wealth of information on the Internet, including the USPTO and the NIH Office of Technology Transfer Web sites. And from Science's Next Wave, I learned about various science career options and found information on how to make the transition into a patent law career. The stories from other individuals who had made career transitions to these new fields were particularly inspiring to me.

Because of my research on patent law careers, I now know what kind of training I need and what my options are. Although I have not taken the LSAT or applied to law school, I have visited the Web sites of several law schools in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., area. It is very difficult as I enter my final year of graduate school to think about filling out applications and preparing for the LSAT exam, so I have decided to take a year or two after graduate school to test the waters before enrolling. There are various ways to break into this field while continuing to use my scientific training and satisfying my interests in research science. In fact, I am considering applying for positions--a postdoc in the Office of Technology Transfer at NIH, a patent examiner with the USPTO, and a technical specialist at a law firm--and perhaps for a fellowship related to intellectual property law or science policy. Some of these positions even offer the added advantage of paying for law school. And any of these possibilities will prepare me for my career change.

Four years ago, I began work toward a Ph.D. in pharmacology and experimental therapeutics. I envisioned that a career as a university professor and laboratory scientist would follow. I never imagined that there were so many alternative careers in which I could use my scientific training. By exploring my options, I have discovered opportunities for scientists in fields including computational biology, regulatory affairs, business marketing, sales, technical support and development, public policy, science writing, and journalism to name a few. I have become particularly interested in intellectual property law and technology transfer. And now, although I would never have predicted this as a first-year graduate student, I am preparing for an alternative science career as a patent agent or attorney.