From PhD to Postdoc to Patents

I was recently quoted in the article “Ageing of Australia’s scientists creating a void in nation’s future research workforce”, in connection with making the ‘giant leap’ from the bench to the boardroom last year. It’s been 12 months now and honestly – I haven’t looked back. How am I doing this, what does it take and is it what I hoped it would be? Read on!

Since January 2014, I’ve been working at Watermark as a Trainee Patent and Trade Marks Attorney in the biological and chemical technologies group. During this time I’ve vetted many emails, phone calls and the occasional Facebook message about ‘what it’s like on the other side?’ So I thought I might piece together a few points about my personal experience transitioning out of the lab.

Let’s start from the top, what does it take to be a trainee?

To be considered for my position, you have to have a PhD in a Biology or Chemistry related field. More preferably, post-doc experience and a proficiency in writing is highly recommended. Here at Watermark, we provide a holistic approach to the clients’ IP portfolio so a background and interest in law and business commercialisation definitely adds value to your CV.

The rules about what you have to do to become a Patent and/or Trade Marks Attorney are set out in the Patents Act, and the Trade Marks Act respectively. You can find out more about precisely what these are from the Professional Standards Board website, and about being a Patent Attorney or a Trade Marks Attorney on the IPTA website.

During your training, which typically runs over about three years, you will need to complete nine subjects as part of a Masters of Intellectual Property Law in addition to gaining everyday hands-on experience within the firm. The University of Melbourne, Monash University, University of Technology Sydney and Queensland University of Technology deliver courses that are accredited by the Professional Standards Board, but not all topic groups are offered by all the above providers.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a huge culture shock going ‘back to uni’; something I swore I would never do. But, in hindsight, it’s really not so bad. Most of the subjects at the University of Melbourne can be taken as an intensive program, running over about five days followed by a take-home exam. ‘Drafting‘ and ‘Interpretation and Validity’ are also taught in an intensive manner but require traditional ‘lock-you-in-a-room’ exams.

A Day in the Life of a Trainee

The second most popular question I get is “what do you actually do?” My typical response is, “I write a lot of letters.” This is somewhat true. These letters are mostly in the form of reporting examination reports to the client, requesting client instructions, responding to foreign associates and the like. Some people appear bored and disheartened at this stage of the conversation, but then comes the best bit! In order to write these letters I get to devour ‘prior art documents’ a.k.a journal articles and patent specifications which showcase the latest and most innovative technology the world has seen. And I have to be honest – some of the inventions have literally left me gob-smacked and in awe. And, apparently, I’m just starting out on all the exciting stuff I’ll get to advise upon!

Starting from the ‘bottom of the heap’

After eight years of lab experience, I could perform an ELISA, purify a protein and run an SDS-PAGE gel in my sleep. These days I’m on the bottom rung of the ladder, which can shake-up some personalities. It’s not for everyone. The realisation that you are still the expert in your field, but no longer the ‘expert’ in your workplace is sometimes hard to swallow. To an extent, you are no longer in control of your daily activities. Matters are delegated to you – it may be a very busy period or quiet – in which case you are given the opportunity to write fun articles such as ‘Balenciaga Puts its Foot Down Again with Steve Madden’ or ‘Protecting Your Brand: The Justice League Way’. At the same time, you are learning a completely different language and set of skills: IP with a heavy helping of law and a dash of commercialisation.

Overall, I don’t have any regrets about leaving the bench. I still get to interact with scientists whether it is at conferences or client meetings. More importantly, I get to utilise skills learnt in my PhD in my everyday life as a trainee patent attorney. These include multi-tasking, writing and communication, time management, and innovative thinking.

All this being said, I’ll leave you with some final thoughts.

What do I miss about the ‘bench’?

The adrenalin rush of that ‘killer’ experiment giving you the result you were hoping for.

What don’t I miss about the ‘bench’?

The continual begging for funding.

Best thing about becoming a Patent Attorney?

Moving into a profession which capitalises on my PhD and keeps me intellectually stimulated.

The downside to becoming a Patent Attorney?

Hanging up my Converse Chuck Taylors……. but I do drag them out on casual Fridays.