About this time last year, I took a position as a postdoctoral researcher, working on an ultrasensitive MEMS gravimeter. It has been an absolutely fascinating year, I learned a lot, developed a bunch of skills and had a brilliant time. However, I always knew that the post was temporary. Initially it I had a 6-month contract. This was extended for another 6 months before I got a letter to say it would be ending. After that, if the research group wanted to keep me on, they’d have to advertise the post and do interviews.
I took this as an opportunity to think about my career and what I actually wanted from it. I’ve had a great time in research. I love research and the people I work with are amazing. Sadly, if I wanted to stay, I’d probably have another decade of these short-term contracts and even after that, there’s really no guarantee of a permanent post, especially if I want to stay in Glasgow or Edinburgh, which I do. Oh, and the farther up the career ladder I manage to climb, the less time I’ll get to spend doing actual research. So, you know what? No deal.
In February I started thinking seriously about other options and remembered having attended a careers event a few years ago and speaking to a partner at a patent firm. The work sounded fun, so I did some more research about it. I read Turning Points, a book by a physics researcher who had changed careers to go into patent law, only to then change his mind again and return to research. I read Not So Obvious, a book introducing patent law. Both books involve the American patent system, which is quite different to the UK one but has some similarities. Both encouraged me to look into this some more.
I messaged a friend who works as a trainee patent attorney for a large firm in Glasgow, to ask her some initial questions. She was really helpful and gave me some CV advice and made some suggestions about what to do next. I then got in touch with other trainees through LinkedIn and asked if they’d be willing to let me buy them a coffee and ask them about the job. As terrifyingly bold as this seems, it turned out to be a great idea. People were very happy to meet me, to answer any questions I have, to mention me to their bosses, and they were generally extremely helpful.
Then I met a careers advisor who gave me more advice, and I attended a workshop on interview techniques. Next, I asked friends to look over my CV and covering letter. You should have seen how much amazing feedback they gave me. I’m actually proud of my CV now – it’s a weird feeling. Oh, and if you’re the kind of person who always feels like they’re bragging when they write a CV, definitely get friends to look at it; they know when you’re underselling yourself. I knew that the field was competitive, and I figured if I was going to go for it, I had better make sure to do absolutely everything I could to make it work. Finally, I sent carefully tailored CVs and covering letters to every firm in Edinburgh and Glasgow who I thought it would be good to work with.
This all meant that by the time I got interviews I was pretty well-informed. I had three interviews with three different firms. With the last firm, I decided not to continue with the application process because by the time I’d met with them the first two firms had made offers, which I needed to respond to quite quickly. After thinking about it and discussing it endlessly with anyone who’d listen, I decided to join a firm in Edinburgh, where I will take on the role of Trainee Patent Attorney! I am extremely excited.
Incidentally, while all of the preparation and help made a big difference, I was also just plain lucky. I happened to be applying at a time when my skill set was in demand and when a few firms were thinking about hiring. It’s not unusual for job searches to take longer than this.
I start on 17th July. My contract at Glasgow University ends on 30th June, but I have some annual leave left, so my last day will actually be 9th June. Which means I get a long summer holiday! Like when I was a kid!
It will probably take me at least 5 or 6 years to pass all my qualifying exams and become a Chartered Patent Attorney in the UK as well as a European Patent Attorney. If I’m lucky, I might be able to persuade my new boss to let me get started right away and take my first exam in October, but I guess I’ll wait and see what he thinks about that.
In any case, the next few years are going to be very different to anything I’ve experienced before, and I can’t wait to get stuck in.
FAQ – from friends who have made confused faces when I’ve told them my plans. Please note that this is not legal advice. If you’ve somehow stumbled across my blog searching for information about patents, go check out the CIPA website or, you know, get in touch with a patent firm.
What does a patent attorney do?
They draft patents, legal documents designed to protect the ideas of inventors.
Do you have to do lots of studying/pass lots of exams?
Oh, yes. Most trainees study in their own time (a lot of people told me they spend about an hour studying each evening, plus about half a day at the weekend) and will also do on the job training. In the UK, there are two systems for foundation tier trainees; you can either take the foundation exams, or you can do a course which grants exemption from the exams. Following this, you can do your qualifying exams. Meanwhile, if you want to qualify in Europe, you need to get two years experience, then take an exam to see if you’re ready to take the European exams, and then take those exams. Fortunately, there is some overlap in material.
You’re an astrophysicist! That’s the coolest job ever! Why would you want to be a patent attorney?
See above. I’d have no job security for the next ten years (or longer) and the more senior I get in research the less actual research I’ll get to do. Plus, in academia, you can become very focused on just one small area of research, and don’t often get the opportunity to look up and see all the other amazing research that’s going on. As a patent attorney, there’s the potential to learn about many varied inventions and ideas. Plus, I think it provides a truly valuable service to inventors and companies and I expect to find that quite rewarding.
Will this mean you’re also a lawyer? Will you get more letters after your name?
No. A patent attorney is not a lawyer, although there’s no reason why they couldn’t become one one day if they really wanted to – just they’d have to go back to university and get a degree in law. When I qualify I will be able to put CPA (Chartered Patent Attorney) after my name.
You do gravitational physics. Einstein revolutionised gravitational physics as a patents clerk. Are you trying to become the next Einstein?
I mean… Obviously?