This Q&A has been lightly formatted and edited by CJ and checked for accuracy by TL.
Chemjobber: Can you describe your background a little?
TL: I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist, but it took me a few semesters of college for me to figure out what I wanted to major in. I hated chemistry in high school so I shyed away from chem as an undergrad, but I ended up taking organic chemistry, and I fell in love. As much as I enjoyed it, and my undergraduate lab experience, I knew I didn't want to work in a lab for my entire career. I went to grad school with that in mind - I thought that having a PhD would provide more career opportunities for me.
However, I wasn't sure that grad school was the place for me, so I took some time off to take a job at a biotech company and then a big pharma company, and I never looked back. I had a great career as an associate medicinal chemist. But it's hard to move ahead without a PhD, and I also saw that the industry was hurting, so I realized it was finally time for me to start exploring options outside the lab.
CJ: Your new position involves intellectual property -- how do you like it?
TL: I am now a patent examiner at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, although as someone pointed out, I'm not actually a patent examiner, I'm a patent application examiner. I am given several patent applications to read. Once I understand the invention in the application, I write a response to the applicant's attorney with an analysis of their invention, how it fits into the prior art, and whether or not it is patentable. The goal is to help the applicant claim what is rightfully theirs without infringing upon others.
My role as a patent examiner has been a great way for me to use my scientific background in a new way. I like seeing what people are working on across a variety of disciplines, and every day I get to read about something new. Some days I read about medicinal chemistry related art, but some days I read about different diseases or cosmetic treatments or food additives. I enjoy the challenge of understanding art that I am not familiar with, and understanding the problems and how people are trying to improve upon the current technology.
There are a lot of benefits to the job, but the best part of the job is the amount of training and mentoring they provide. They want their employees to succeed. Of course they have their own reasons for helping you - it's a business, even if it's a government agency - but I can't remember the last time my employer made such efforts to not only develop the skills I need to complete my job, but to outline potential career paths at USPTO or with the federal government. The training program is extensive and we are given quite a bit of time to ramp up to full production.
CJ: Do you find your chemistry skills being used substantially on a day-to-day basis in your new position?
TL: There certainly isn't any wet lab work involved in patent examining. But writing an office action is similar to writing a journal article - there's a lot of formal language, you need to concisely and coherently make your argument, and there are revisions and input from your supervisor and replies from the applicant's attorney. Applications are also judged based on the state of the art at the time of the invention, so you need to have an idea of what would be known to a chemist at the time that the patent was written. We use the phrase "one having ordinary skill in the art" all the time. (CJ: a.k.a. PHOSITA)
CJ: Anything you miss about not being in the lab? Anything you don't miss?
TL: I miss crystallization - it's just so beautiful. But many of the things that I enjoyed about working in the lab - the process of creation, and the scientific process itself - I appreciate in everyday life. Many of my hobbies are hands-on and of the create-something variety. Who doesn't do a bit of experimentation and trial-and-error in the kitchen?
CJ: What would you suggest to someone interested in following your path?
TL: USPTO has a very diverse workforce - there are people of all ages and backgrounds, so there's no one right way to go about becoming an examiner. I believe 40-50% of the examiners in the chemistry and biology technology center have a PhD, and most of the rest have a master's degree. Some are right out of academia and some have industry experience. The most important thing is that you have to enjoy reading and writing about a wide variety of topics, since you aren't always going to be examining kinase inhibitors or cancer treatments or whatever your specialty may be.
Set up an automatic search on USAJOBS.gov for a patent examiner position (I bet most of your readers already have one for the keyword "chemistry") and just keep your eyes open. Job postings tend to come and go, so it's just a matter of timing.
CJ here again. Thanks so much to TL for the thoughtful and interesting conversation!