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Patents & Related Work | The Careers Service Patents & Related Work – Oxford University Careers Service
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About this sector

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 job

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 UK Intellectual Property Office, which is based in Newport, South Wales, usually recruits a few trainees each year; the posts are advertised on their website.
  • The European Patent Office is based in Munich with branches in The Hague and Berlin. The European Patent Office typically recruits a few Assistant Examiners each year and 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.
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 and 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.

Skills & experience

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.

Getting experience

It can be 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, Engineering and Technology Fair and some also organise open days which give an excellent insight into what the work is really like – check our events on CareerConnect for more information.

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 IP 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 IP Careers Guide to Chartered Patent Attorneys, which is available to take away from the Careers Service or from IP 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 & 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 Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

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:

  • IP Careers Guide: Chartered Patent Attorneys

Podcasts of past events

Careers in Patents

If you are a scientist/engineer who is interested in patent work then this podcast (recorded November 2014) gives you the opportunity to listen to Alex Ford who studied Materials Science at Oxford and is working in private practice for Dehns. He will explain what his work is like and the training involved in becoming a fully qualified patent attorney.

Patents & Intellectual Property

Interested in finding out what intellectual property and patent work is all about? Listen to a patent attorney from JA Kemp and an intellectual property solicitor from Bristows law firm explain all about their roles, including similarities and differences (recorded November 2013).

This information was last updated on 23 November 2017.
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