After graduating with a master's degree in endocrinology in 1988, Montrealer Daniel Begin went straight into the lab, working as a research assistant. Facing never-ending workdays with little financial reward, he soon realized that even though he loved science, bench work was not for him. He wanted a career that offered better working conditions and monetary incentives. His search ended when he answered a job advertisement from the Government of Canada's Patent Office in Gatineau, Quebec.

Many recent innovations and leading-edge discoveries come across Begin's desk, running the gamut from gene sequencing to cancer treatments. Working as a senior patent examiner, he weaves and bobs his way through intricate legal and technical mazes in order to secure intellectual property rights for inventions, individuals, and corporations worldwide. Now that he's more than 12 years into his job, Begin is sure that he made the right career move.

Patent Numbers

"The pressures on my personal life while in research made me want to choose something that has a better balance between work and family life," says Begin. "But I still feel that I am very much in touch with science, only without the burden of having to do bench work 60-hours-plus a week."

Begin is not alone in seeking this alternative to academic and industrial research careers. The Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) employs 275 patent examiners from varied backgrounds in science and engineering. Nearly 80% of them have been hired in just the last 5 years, most of them into brand-new positions. And the expansion is likely to continue.

Why has CIPO been recruiting so aggressively? More than 40,000 applications are submitted to CIPO's Patent Office each year, 90% of which come from outside Canada. Add to this the fact that it takes 6 months to 2 years to complete one file, and it's not hard to imagine the backlog of applications waiting to be completed. An efficiently run patent office, notes Lillo Giardina, CIPO's science and engineering divisional chief, is key to any country's innovation-based economy; faced with such a mountain of cases, the government of Canada is in a hiring frenzy as it works to bolster its number of patent examiners and reduce the backlog.

"It's not just in Canada; every patent office around the world is falling behind," states Giardina. "There has been a phenomenal growth in the number of patents being filed globally." In the United States, since 1997, the number of patent applications has grown by 50%, and the backlog of patents waiting for action by an examiner has quadrupled. As a result, the U.S. Patent Office is hiring more than 500 examiners per year to keep up with the demand.

CIPO is catching up on the backlog, but there is still plenty of work to do, says Giardina, and plenty of opportunities for scientists to step in and do that work. Recognizing the need, the federal government is offering careers as patent examiners to postgraduates with specialties from biochemistry to genetics. Throughout the year, the Patent Office conducts targeted searches in specific fields. This past September alone, 20 examiner positions in the biotechnology section were filled by science postgraduates with degrees in microbiology, biochemistry, and pharmaceutical sciences. Throughout winter and early spring next year, according to Giardina, CIPO might recruit another 40 people, in science and technology disciplines as yet to be determined.

Training

Although most of the recruiting has been through university campuses during career fairs, applications are taken over the Internet throughout the year. Once a candidate is in the system, the screening process takes about 2 to 3 months, commencing with a general test of writing and analytical abilities. Those clearing this hurdle win a site visit, including a demonstration of what a real-life patent examiner does day to day. "We can usually see by the interview process whether it's what they expected or not," adds Giardina.

Once accepted into the program, examiner "boot camp" begins in earnest. Trainees under the guidance of a mentor-examiner are slowly ramped up from purely theoretical cases to real-life, legally and technically complex patent applications. Over the course of 2 years, they are taught to read, search, and write reports, says Giardina, adding that "at the end of this apprentice program, the new patent examiner is ready to handle basic legal and technical issues related to most applications."

So what is a typical workday like? As soon as the applications arrive on the patent examiner's desk, the hunt for competing and existing products and similar technologies begins. Examiners are like detectives consulting scores of online databases, journals, and textbooks and evaluating the scientific and technical concepts behind the application. The goal is to determine the scientific soundness and novelty of the invention. At the end of the investigation, the examiner negotiates with the applicants the scope of the patent that can be granted.

There is no doubt in Begin's mind that science graduates are well suited for this work. Examining patents involves problem-solving and critical-thinking skills--the same sort of work that goes on in any laboratory. "It's like when a protocol doesn't work; you have to think and plan;" says Begin. "Having lab experience is essential, since you can put yourself into the inventor's shoes, having been there yourself."

What's so appealing about the job? Most applicants for the science divisions at CIPO come from postgraduate studies and are in their late 20s to early 40s, some with young families. Giardina believes that many are drawn by the regular work hours and sound government benefits package offered by CIPO. The few who do decide to move on usually do so during the first 2 years of training; otherwise, "they stick around for the long haul," says Giardina.

Retention rates are high, which Begin attributes to job security and high morale. "The environment is very friendly. We do have an office hierarchy, but we hardly feel it. It's more like a collaboration than a competition."

Whether it's in the flow and progress of the research or just surviving from one grant to the next, working in a laboratory, as Begin remembers it, is an emotional roller-coaster ride. The rewards of his present career arise from being the gatekeeper to the deployment of cutting-edge inventions, having the opportunity to assess new developments on a technical level, and having the chance to learn new things all the time. With more than 12 years at the Patent Office, Begin has no doubt that patent examining offers a great alternative career choice for those wanting to leave research, yet stay in the world of science.

"Unlike working in a lab, this job is more steady, and even after you have finished only 1 week of work, you have a sense that you have accomplished something, something useful to the world as a whole," says Begin.

Upcoming Career Fair Appearances by CIPO

24 November 2004 (10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.)

École de Technologie Supérieure Career Fair

1100 Notre-Dame West Street

Montréal QC H3C 1K3

20 January 2005 (10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.)

University of Ottawa Science Career Fair

Marion Hall, Cafeteria

140 Louis Pasteur Street and 365 Nicholas Street

Ottawa ON K1N 6N5

For more information on CIPO and on becoming a patent examiner, visit the CIPO Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.