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Career 'Survivor'


I have a small confession to make: my well of experience has run dry. Over the course of the last four articles, I've presented a few hints and lessons distilled from my own exercises in career exploration, with the express intent of helping other students focus their energy on what works. Now that we've hit the present, however, my story arrives in raw form. Streaming media direct from my career exploration to your computer screen. Not quite "LarryCam," but for those who thrive on the thrill of reality TV, a small chunk of voyeuristic candy. Frankly, it makes me a little nervous: With my entire job search on public display, things could get interesting.

But unlike the purely gluttonous pleasure of watching normal people demean themselves for money, hopefully a few lessons can be drawn from my experiences. At the very least, some of you might save a few valuable gel running hours and perhaps even learn to avoid stepping where I shouldn't have. And I won't even have to eat a mangrove worm. ...

In previous articles in this series, I dropped several hints that my goal is to pursue a career in patent law. To set the stage for what will follow, let me take a few moments to review how I arrived on this trajectory.

Like many of you, I began this journey as a grad student looking for a career outside research. Lacking a guide, I took a relatively random walk through the available career resources, reading a lot of irrelevant books and logging zillions of hours online. Eventually, I was able to find enough information to identify a few possibilities based on my skills, interests, and needs. Although venture capital and business development sounded exciting, I learned that breaking into these careers right out of grad school can be extremely difficult. Focusing on the realistic, I found myself most interested in technology transfer and intellectual property law.

The next step was to get out there and start talking to people in those businesses. In the case of tech transfer, I set up informational interviews with the director of the licensing office at my own university, with a former student who was employed at another nearby tech transfer office, and with a networking contact (the friend of a fellow student) working at yet another local office. Each had a very different perspective, but all three communicated a similar message: Although this is a great place to build a career, it is hard to find a job without specific skills away from the bench. One contact actually suggested starting in intellectual property law before looking for a tech transfer position. Because this was my other interest, I decided to explore IP careers a bit further.

Great advice! With the suggestion to look into IP, and patent law in particular, I found a potential career that seemed to fit me perfectly. After speaking with a few contacts in patent law (again, former students and postdocs), I found that IP offers several benefits. First, law firms hire Ph.D.s fresh out of grad school as "technology specialists" to prepare and prosecute patent applications and occasionally help with technical aspects of licensing and litigation work. Second, the pay is excellent, especially from a grad student perspective. Third, I find the subject fascinating, and the idea of working on several short-term projects involving different cutting-edge technologies excites me. Finally, the experience acquired in a law firm, even if I decided not to remain in private practice, has substantial value in other fields, eliminating much of the risk that IP could become a one-way wrong turn. The downside is that a career at a firm requires a 4-year stint in law school (usually on the firm's dime, by the way), but, hey, after 21 grades, what's a few more!

In my informational interviews, I was always sure to ask for a hint as to how I might get my foot in the door. As I've mentioned, there are no set paths to finding a career outside of research, and it is unlikely that any given contact will be able to do more than point you in a general direction. Listen to their stories: They are absolutely peppered with inside contacts, serendipity, and plain luck. Simply going through the job application motions rarely cuts the mustard--what we need is a specific skill or experience to set us apart from the swarm of disgruntled Ph.D.s.

In the case of patent law, the consensus, apart from the obvious prerequisites of writing skills and the ability to work independently (or, of course, knowing the hiring partner since childhood), was that I should take and do well on the LSATs and pass the patent bar. A good LSAT score will demonstrate both intellectual ability and some degree of commitment to the field. The patent bar takes this a step further. Required for practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and open to all with a technical degree, the exam demands a huge commitment of time and energy, as the prospective employers well know. Additionally, registration with the USPTO not only demonstrates commitment to the line of work, but actually benefits the firm by eliminating the cost incurred from the review course tuition and time off granted to study, and by reducing the risk that the candidate may never pass.

So, I've decided to do both. With a questionable economy and an ever-growing glut of Ph.D.s, I'm not taking any chances. To prepare for the patent bar, I've already spent a few hundred hours and a fair sum of cash on review courses. Perhaps a bit extreme, but I've made a reasonably firm decision to follow this career path and want to do everything possible to make it a reality.

A word of warning, before I get back to studying patent law: Don't forget about your thesis. In the frenzy of searching and preparing for a career, it's easy to lose focus. Don't let that happen. The best thing you can do to advance your career inside or outside science is to graduate as soon as possible. Try to strike a healthy balance between putting together a quality thesis and acquiring a few unique skills. With that, believe it or not, you will find yourself well on the way into the real world.

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