Patents and Related Work

Main Information

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Patent work is intellectually demanding and varied. It can offer the opportunity to work directly with inventors acting as an interface between science and the law. The patent profession often appeals to those who wish to remain involved with cutting-edge science, but who are not attracted to a research role.

A patent (pronounced ‘pat-tent’ not ‘pay-tent’) gives legal protection to a technical invention (product or process) for 20 years. The invention has to be novel and clearly defined. The inventor or, more commonly, their patent attorney describes the invention in the form of a patent application, which is examined for clarity and originality by the appropriate patent office before being granted a licence or patent.

Types of Jobs

There are two main areas in which to practise as a patent attorney. First, as part of the licensing bodies (the UK Intellectual Property Office, which is in effect part of the UK Civil Service, and the European Patent Office) and secondly, as an intermediary (patent attorneys in private practice or industry, who come between the ‘inventors’ and the licensing bodies).

  • The European Patent Office is based in Munich with branches in The Hague and Berlin. The European Patent Office will most likely be recruiting a few Assistant Examiners in 2014/15.   Vacancies are usually advertised on their website.
  • Firms of patent attorneys. These are often described as the ‘private practice’ section of the patent agents’ profession and about 80% of the 1,500 UK-registered patent attorneys work in this area. Most years there are around 30-40 vacancies for trainee patent attorneys.
  • Patent departments in industrial companies. These are usually fairly small departments within large companies that have a substantial investment in research. The ‘in-house’ patent attorney deals with the patent work arising from that company only. In such departments there are only a small number of vacancies a year and these are more likely to be for qualified patent attorneys rather than for trainees. In the Civil Service and its agencies these ‘in-house’ patent attorneys are called Patent Officers.

skills NEEDED

  • A fascination for ‘how things work’. If you are the type of person who takes things to pieces just to find out how they work, then this could be the profession for you.
  • Communication skills, particularly in writing, are of key importance. Many firms include a written exercise as part of their selection process.

entry points

Typically trainee patent attorneys sit two sets of exams: the first to become a Registered Patent Attorney in the UK and the second to become a European Patent Attorney. Training for these is usually a combination of in-house preparation and a series of centralised lectures. Many firms encourage their trainees to spend several months in full-time study on relevant university courses. Training typically takes four to five years.

Biochemistry, Chemistry, Engineering and Physics are particularly relevant for a career in patent work. Other subjects which are sometimes sought after include: Biological Sciences (especially molecular biology/genetic engineering) – a higher degree is advantageous – Computer Science and Materials Science. There are no recommended preparatory postgraduate courses.

In the case of the European Patent Office, the language requirement puts many people off applying. Ask yourself how difficult it would really be to get your languages up to the necessary standard, if, in other respects, you are keen. For private practice, languages can be useful (particularly German) but are not a pre-requisite.

GETTING EXPERIENCE

It is very difficult to obtain work experience in this field, but talking to one or two patent attorneys or examiners and visiting a firm of patent attorneys before applying for jobs will greatly increase your chances. During Michaelmas Term a number of patent firms attend the Science and Engineering Fair and some also organise open days which give an excellent insight into what the work is really like.

If you do manage to arrange work experience, there is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer as well as on the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

GETTING A JOB

Competition for these jobs is not as fierce as the small number of vacancies might suggest. Oxbridge graduates make up about 65% of successful applicants. Whilst many of the large firms tell us about their vacancies, most firms will advertise current vacancies for trainee patent attorneys through Inside Careers. Firms may also advertise in graduate directories or in New Scientist. Application is usually by way of a CV and cover letter.

  • Speculative applications are a good idea after the end of Michaelmas term, if you have not found sufficient advertised vacancies to apply for by that time. Use the Inside Careers Guide to Chartered Patent Attorneys, which is available to take away from the Careers Service or from Inside Careers, for a comprehensive list of both private firms and in-house departments.

You may find it helpful to look at some patents on the UK Intellectual Property Office website.

EQUALITY AND POSITIVE ACTION

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Inteview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a Stonewall’s Diversity Chamption’.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

OUR RESOURCES

TAKE-AWAY MATERIAL

You can get a free copy of the following publications in our Resource Centre:

  • Inside Careers Guide: Chartered Patent Attorneys

PODCASTS

The Careers Service has recorded a series of podcasts on various topics including patent work, which are accessible on our website .

ONLINE INTERVIEW FEEDBACK

Our Interview Feedback Database contains hundreds of accounts of interviews, submitted by Oxford students and graduates. The database can be searched by sector and by organisation.

OXFORD CAREERS NETWORK (OCN)

The OCN on CareerConnect is a database of over 1000 Oxford alumni volunteer mentors who are willing to be contacted about their career.  Read their case studies for behind-the-scenes insights into an organisation or occupation, and contact them for more advice and information.

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