By Meg Booth, University of Cambridge
In January 2017, I attended a careers talk where I saw a presentation given by a Patent Attorney. I was immediately captivated by what sounded like the perfect career for me in that it would allow me to combine my technical background in molecular biology with my interests in science communication, writing and client relations. I decided that to find out if this was indeed a career dream come true, I would try and get some experience of working at an Intellectual Property firm. I subsequently embarked upon a CV/cover letter barrage, emailing as many firms as I could to see if they would employ me on a voluntary basis or offer me an internship for three months (as I figured this would be enough time to gain a significant insight into the day-to-day working life of a Patent Attorney). I had a mixed response of mostly no’s and a few offers to attend open days or week long work experience programmes. Fast forward to a year later and I managed to secure a three-month internship with Venner Shipley LLP.
A Patent Attorney uses their technical background in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subject to assess whether an invention is both novel and inventive over existing inventions; if it is, then a patent can be drafted. A patent is a 20 year, legal right that an inventor can use to prevent others (i.e. a competitor) from using or copying their invention. If they did, then they could be liable for infringement.
Getting a patent granted involves many different steps including filing a specification to a patent office (in the UK this could be the UK patent office or the European Patent Office, who act independently of the EU) where it is then searched and examined by examiners in the relevant technical field. The initial search will flag up any prior art documents that the examiner thinks could affect the chances of the patent being granted. At this point, the application may be amended to address any potential problems. The application will then be sent for examination and the examiner will decide if it meets the requirements for patentability.
On my first day I was given a pre-filing patentability search report that had come in a couple of days previously. These reports are carried out prior to a patent being drafted, to ensure that the idea is patentable against previously published documents (i.e. other patents, peer reviewed papers, articles). My task was to read through the report and the cited documents and formulate an opinion as to whether the invention was patentable. During my time with Venner Shipley I was exposed to the wide variety of work that a trainee would be given such as: responding to search and examination reports; amending claims; drafting correspondence to clients and foreign associates and I was even able to contribute to a patent draft which I found really rewarding.
I found all of the work incredibly interesting and I particularly enjoyed picking through documents and case law and formulating arguments. I had frequent discussions with my supervisors to discuss my work and how it could be improved. I found these meetings really useful, as I was able to see how and why certain arguments weren’t needed or where I had missed certain features from my arguments; I felt I was able to develop my skills and confidence throughout the three months. Not only did I find the work fascinating, but the firm has such a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that I have also made some great friends!
If, before completing the internship, I had been asked why I wanted to be a Patent Attorney I would have answered that I enjoy science but don’t enjoy lab work and that patent law allows you to use your science without being stuck at a bench. Whilst this is still a very true answer, I have realised that there is so much more to being a Patent Attorney. Every day presented new challenges and the opportunity to learn something new. Whether this is new scientific or technical knowledge, a new skill or a new rule or article, I found that every day my brain was in constant use from 9am until I turned off my computer at 5pm. I was also lucky enough to attend networking events, such as those run by One Nucleus, where I was able to network with people from a variety of different sectors, learn about interesting research being conducted in Cambridge and take part in fascinating Q&A panel discussions. This allowed me to fully appreciate the business development aspect to the job and I found it very enjoyable.
It is such a fantastic feeling when you help a client translate their invention into a patent draft and they are happy with your work. While I only had limited experience of this from the small contribution I made to a patent draft, I could really see the job satisfaction and the importance of providing work of a high standard for clients. Experiencing drafting also demonstrated that there are times when the job can be stressful and busy. This is particularly true when you’re working to deadlines and have multiple cases to work on, all equally as important as each other.
I have learnt a lot during my time with Venner Shipley and in particular I have found that the quality of my written work and my ability to absorb information has really improved. I would advise anyone considering an internship (even if this is not offered as part of your standard PhD programme) to seek out an extended period of relevant work experience in any sector of interest. The PhD project itself is important and is what gets you your degree. However, the job market, post-graduation, is becoming increasingly competitive (particularly the Life Sciences sector for patent law) and being able to back up your enthusiasm for a position with relevant work experience could work wonders. I think three months is a good amount of time to allow you to experience what life is really like in the job and make a significant contribution to the work force. There are a lot of opportunities available to students (summer internships during undergraduate and master’s degrees and three month placements for PhD students) and even if your PhD does not come with funding for a placement, some internships are funded by the company you are working for and universities offer students the option to pause studies or take extended leave.
Opportunities for work experience and internships are often posted on various graduate and society websites. The Biochemical Society is also able to offer short term work experience placements to school students over the age of 16 and a limited number of internships of up to three months. You can also find information dedicated to providing advice for students considering applying for internships on The Biochemical Society Website.
For more information about careers and the training involved in becoming a Patent Attorney, the IP careers website is an excellent source of information.
I am a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge. In my spare time I enjoy horse riding and I marginally enjoy running – I am currently training for a 10K. I am also the student representative on The Biochemist editorial board.