November’s blog showcases Patent Examiner, a popular career choice for researchers [note: not to be confused with Patent Lawyer/Attorney]. “Miguel” works in the European Patent office and explains his role and what it takes to get into this profession.
Patent examiner, European Patent office
The minimum requirements for the role of patent examiner at EPO is an undergraduate degree. However, in reality, most (if not all) of the 300 examiners working in the biotechnology cluster have a PhD and postdoctoral experience. The reason for this is that the job requires highly critical analytical skills and the ability to have meaningful in-depth scientific discussions with the patent applicants. The information and analysis is highly specific and you need to be able to de-construct the details of the application to determine its value and contribution to the advancement of a particular technology.
Only 30 – 40% of patent applications are accepted per year and the process, from start to finish, lasts several years. I work in a team of three but our work is carried out individually. Each of us works on our own applications. I research databases, examine all the information, analyse the contribution and build up a dossier. I write a report highlighting the strong and weak points of the application and give my opinion on the patentability of the invention. I then negotiate with the applicants through an exchange of letters until we reach an agreement or their application is rejected, in which case I meet with the applicants, their lawyers and supporters at a hearing with my other two colleagues to make the final decision and to close the case.
In addition to scientific expertise and a highly critical analytical mind, language skills (English, French and German) are required by the EPO. You need to have excellent knowledge of two in order to apply but a third is usually desirable. If your language skills are not good enough they will ask you to go away and improve on them before you can are accepted for the job. The majority of employees here are from France and Germany but smaller countries where language skills are more important such as Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland are well represented. Notable under-represented large countries include the UK, Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain.
Towards the end of my PhD in molecular genetics at the Università Autonoma and CSIC in Madrid I started looking for postdoctoral positions. I wasn’t convinced of aiming for a career in academia; during my PhD I had seen many highly talented researchers striving for this only to be unsuccessful due to the very strong competition. Therefore I focussed on research posts in industry and secured a position in a small start-up company in Germany – a spin-out company from the Max Planck Institute. The job was ideal – it was a permanent post and I felt more valued than in academia; I led a small team and could delegate more routine tasks so I could focus on reading, experimental design and analysing data. After two years, however, it was clear the company was not really taking off so I started to look at other options. As well as again looking for research posts, I saw an advertisement for a patent examiner in Nature which caught my attention. I had never considered this as a career before. I had been on the other side of the process as a patent applicant but I could never understand a word of the legal aspects of the document. I decided to apply to see what happened and as I looked more closely at the job and working conditions, I became more interested. I was attracted by the prospect of being at the forefront of technological developments and being privy to the very latest breakthroughs. Also, now that I understand the legal side of the job, I find I enjoy it as much as the science!
The Career factors:
Examine jobs in detail
With such a range of jobs being advertised it’s difficult to know what would suit you. Even if you decide to leave academic research you still tend to consider research but instead in an alternative organisation. This is probably because most of us haven’t any idea of what else is on offer or whether we would enjoy it (or be good at it). When I applied for the patent examiner post I didn’t take it seriously to begin with – I had just seen that it was science-related and would involve a visit to The Hague for interview which seemed quite appealing. However, if you look more closely at the detailed specifications of vacancies, rather than only considering the specific subject knowledge and qualifications, you start to get a much better idea about the job. Employers want to know you can do the job and if you’re a bright person with the ability to learn new things they will happily take you on if you have the right skills and potential.
Clearly this is a job for someone who is comfortable working with highly complex scientific information across the field of biotechnology and who has very well developed analytical skills. Furthermore, this is quite an isolated role with people working individually on their own projects with limited interaction with others in their team. This prospect will be appealing to some but not to others and will depend on personal factors; your personality and the skills you enjoy using are more important when choosing your career than your specific subject discipline. When you examine job descriptions look at the skills and personal attributes they require and don’t dwell too much on specific subject knowledge.
This career profile is one of 20 case studies showcased in my book “Career planning for research bioscientists”