Patent law lies at the interface of technology, law, and business. So, how did I become interested in patent law as a career?
I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in Biological Sciences (Honours in Immunology) in 1990. Proceeding along the typical academic career path, I then gained a Ph.D. in molecular immunology. At that point, although I wasn't totally convinced about research, I moved to Oxford and completed an enjoyable and stimulating two-and-half-year postdoc in cell adhesion.
For my second postdoc position, I moved to Vancouver. Here, the combination of the poor salaries and low status of postdocs in Canada and my growing dissatisfaction as a bench scientist caused me to do some hard thinking regarding my future career. Did I really want to work such long hours in short-term contracts for such poor financial reward? For me, as for many others, the answer was no.
However, I still enjoyed science, so I began to investigate alternative careers for scientists. At this stage I discovered Next Wave--yahoo! The Tooling Up articles encouraged me to do some self-assessment, while the Alternative Careers section provided me with lots of information on people who had "made the transition." I decided that I wanted a science-related career that would be varied and challenging, that would make use of my writing, editing, and organizational skills, and that would allow me to develop new transferable skills, all on a decent salary and with lots of future potential! It seemed to me that patent law or science communication would perhaps fit the bill.
The next step was to do some research and information gathering on patent law in the U.K. I found lots of information on the Web sites listed in the Resources section at the bottom of this article. I also obtained a copy of the Ivanhoe career guide to Patent Attorneys, published in association with CIPA (the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents). I discovered that the skills required to succeed in patent law include a sound scientific background, an analytical mind, language ability (preferably with formal qualifications in French and/or German), good communications skills, excellent written and spoken English, and commitment.
I decided to submit applications to train as a patent examiner with both the U.K. and European patent offices, as well as sending off speculative applications to train as a patent agent/attorney in private firms and industrial departments. Basically, I wanted to cover all bases! In the patent offices, examiners investigate applications to ensure that they meet the requirements of patent legislation.
Professional patent agents, on the other hand, are concerned with the filing, prosecution, and obtaining of patents from the Patent Office. Competition for the small number of training positions is fierce, and you should not underestimate the effort required in obtaining professional qualifications.
So, what was the outcome of all my efforts? Well, I eventually received rejection letters from most of the private companies I applied to, but I was invited to interview at the U.K. Patent Office in Newport in Wales. Apart from the typical interview questions, I was also tested on my understanding of simple mechanical devices (both pictorial representations and written descriptions) and asked my opinions on a topical issue, in my case, genetically modified foods. This required a good understanding of the criteria that must be fulfilled for a patent to be granted. I managed to pass the interview but was not offered a job in the first instance.
For anyone reading this who might be interested in pursuing a career in patent law, here's my advice:
Preparation, preparation, preparation! Do your research and know what you are talking about.
Try and set up an informal interview with a patent agent. CIPA can help with this. (Contact Diana Burridge at CIPA.)
Talk to people in the biz. Pick up the phone and chat to people. Don't be afraid to cold-call like this--I found most people very friendly and helpful.
Apply to private firms in the autumn--I think that by applying in the springtime, my CV did not hit desks during active recruiting phases.
Become familiar with what a patent looks like (check out the U.K. Patent Office Web site ) and practice verbal claim-drafting of simple objects, e.g., a saucepan or a staple remover.
So, if I didn't succeed in finding a job in patent law, you may be wondering what I am doing now. Well, luckily for me, my applications in other fields were more successful: In August I will start work as Editor of the journal Immunology Today.
The following Web sites contain lots of useful information on patent law:
Chartered Institute of Patent Agents  (CIPA). The institute can arrange an informal interview with a qualified patent agent for someone thinking about entering the profession.
CIPA also cooperates in the preparation of the Ivanhoe Guide to Chartered Patent Agents, an annual in-depth careers book. Hard copies should be available at careers centers and university libraries, but a copy can be obtained directly from CIPA. The guide is also available on the Web .