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Alternative Career Anxiety: A Reckoning with Lingering Doubts


I 've seen the future, and I'm feeling a little queasy. On 18 April, I sat for the Patent Bar. After an arduous 6 hours of furious test taking, I found myself, eyes sore from straining to find rules in the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure and stomach churning from a diet of coffee and energy bars, wondering if I had made the right decision. As I waited for the final few minutes to tick off the clock, I looked around the room at the scores of law students and lawyers, faces grim with stress and worry, and asked myself: "What the heck am I getting myself into?"

My concern derives from more than a bad day with a standardized test. Struggling through the exam simply precipitated a reckoning with several lingering doubts that I had conveniently hidden behind the more flashy aspects of my chosen career path. Rose-colored glasses properly discarded, I am now forced to reconsider the downside associated with not only patent law in particular but also leaving research in general.

I am reminded of the first concern every time I flip to the business section of the paper: The economy is "softening." In a healthy, vigorous economic environment, jobs are plentiful, especially in light of academia's persistent oversupply of labor. Even though the life sciences Ph.D. needs to blaze their own trail into the nonresearch market, opportunities, by all accounts, are abundant. During a contraction, however, all bets are off. Although an economic turnaround may be in the cards by the time I graduate in the fall, putting together a CV geared toward a job outside of my specific training in the face of a shrinking "Help Wanted" section and daily announcements of layoffs is disconcerting, to say the least.

Related to the job market concern is the fear that leaving research is a one-way street. If I abandon my pipettor for patent law and then the job market tanks, I could be left without a job and no way to fall back on a postdoc as a last, but paying, resort. I've spent the last 5 years of my life acquiring not only the intellectual skills valued in nonresearch environments but also the specific skills that make me uniquely qualified for bench work. And in tough times, it only makes sense to stick with that for which you are best qualified.

To top it off, evidence is mounting that the beneficial demographics of a career away from the bench may be changing. On the one hand, it's clear I'm not the first grad student to see the benefits of intellectual-property law calling. In fact, it appears that there has been a large surge in the number of disgruntled Ph.D.s finding relief writing patents at law firms. Although my contacts assure me that there is more than enough work to expand the ranks within private practice and government still further (see, e.g., this recent article from Next Wave Germany), my queasiness builds nevertheless.

On the other hand, it appears, from firsthand knowledge gleaned from my seat on the department's admissions committee, that the number of applicants to graduate programs has declined precipitously. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is not a localized phenomenon, but a systemic problem for all but the top five or 10 biomedical graduate programs. The obvious result will be a long-term decline in the number of Ph.D.s and, consequently, less competition for research jobs. Although it will probably be quite a while before we work off the current glut of underemployed Ph.D.s, this apparent change in the job market calculus is worth considering.

Even if the negative aspects of leaving research don't deter me, I must consider the substantial challenges of essentially starting fresh in patent law. The flip side to the attractiveness of beginning something new and exciting is the sobering realization that I need to develop another entire set of unfamiliar skills and proficiencies. Although on balance I think I'll actually enjoy the challenge of learning a new trick, patent law has a steep learning curve, and I need to be prepared for the associated frustration.

And that brings us to the biggest negative of all: 4 years of law school. By all accounts, the experience is painful. Four nights of school each week, studying on weekends, and a full-time job that requires attention for 8 to 10 hours per day. Combine this with a long commute and family commitments, and the potential long-term payoff provides little comfort for the day-to-day stress. If anything will send me back to the bench, this is it.

Despite all of these doubts, I'm happy to report that I've decided to maintain my direction. I've got LSATs in June and will initiate a full-scale job search as soon as my graduation plans have firmed up. A generous dose of trepidation has forced a healthy reevaluation of not only the good, but also the difficult, points of a career in patent law. As I move closer to finally graduating and finding a new job, it will become increasingly important to keep an accurate and realistic perspective. Let's just hope it won't take another 6-hour exam.