Thursday, June 9, 2016

"If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same way."

Also in this week's C&EN, a brief profile of patent attorney Paul Dietze by Linda Wang. He got to his position by a not-entirely-conventional means, starting first as an assistant professor at UMBC:
Charting a new path: Dietze was not offered tenure at UMBC (CJ's note: this happened in 1993) so he applied to law school, an idea he had toyed with early on. Dietze worked as a review chemist for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and attended the University of Maryland School of Law in the evenings. He earned his law degree in 1998. 
Blending chemistry and law as a patent attorney: As a special counsel for Haynes & Boone, LLP, Dietze advises clients in the generic pharmaceutical industry on patenting issues. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I get to use my chemistry, and I get to use my law degree. It’s really a perfect blend of everything. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same way.”
It seems to me that so many people who go through a difficult time and ultimately succeed seem to say similar things to "I'd do it exactly the same way." I don't understand it, but it reminds me of a passage from a favorite novel (Stephen King's "The Stand"), describing this process via an anecdote about a rhythm guitar player:
Then, somehow, over a period of eighteen months, he had gotten clean, and stayed clean. A lot of him was gone. He was no longer the driving wheel of any group, Most Likely to Succeed or otherwise, but he was always on time, never missed a practice session, or f---ed up an audition. He didn't talk much, but the needle highway on his left arm had disappeared. And Barry Grieg had said: He's come out the other side. 
That was all. No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just... come out the other side.  
Or you don't. 
I can't imagine what it is like to be an assistant professor and not be offered tenure, but I imagine that it is a devastating blow. I'm glad that Dr. Dietze came out the other side. 


  1. Tenure denial is certainly devastating and has been the subject of a number of great articles and blog posts across the web. By and large, though, most of my friends/colleagues/acquaintances who have been denied tenure have "come out the other side" and done well for themselves. Some move on to smaller teaching colleges, while others have been able to secure positions at government labs or industry. Some of the happiest ex-faculty that I know have pursued so-called "alternative careers" in venture capital, intellectual property, or policymaking. I don't know any ex-faculty working as fry cooks.

    As the saying goes, "the cream rises". Most assistant profs are talented and motivated individuals who would do well in almost anything they put their minds to, and being a university professor for 5-6 years is a very nice addition to any resume. Many of us in the field understand that getting tenure is a combination of luck, politics, and hard work, and even these three factors are not equally weighted (I'd argue that luck and politics account for at least 60-70% of a successful academic career). I'd be interested in hearing from others who have made that transition and come out the other side.

  2. Speaking as someone who more or less stumbled into patent law due to: (1) the poor job prospects in pharma/not getting my PhD from a top 5 school or lab and (2) unwillingness to postdoc, I agree with Dietze, It is a really fascinating and intellectually challenging field. You get to constantly learn new areas of science daily. I would really encourage more graduate students/postdocs to explore it, many of the large law firms or patent boutiques will hire people straight out of the lab with no legal experience needed for the role of a patent agent/technical specialist and many of them will foot the bill if you elect to pursue law school. And there's job security, which is nice.

  3. The law job market has not exactly been booming for years now. There was a flare-up on r/law the other day on how the DoJ is posting multiple attorney positions across the country at a salary of $0.

    On top of needing a professional degree and current certification, you are specifically banned from finding gainful employment within the industry!

    "Note: Employees of the Department of Justice, including uncompensated Special Assistant United States Attorneys, may not engage in the compensated practice of law outside the office. Attorneys are not eligible to serve as a Special Assistant United States Attorneys if they have had an employment offer deferred by a law firm and received a payment for the period of their deferral with the expectation of future employment with the law firm, or if they will receive any payment from a law firm during their uncompensated employment with the Department of Justice."

    I am skeptical that current chemistry PhD grads will be able to fall backwards into patent law positions with great pay, interesting work, and job security. Wake me up when the EPA starts advertising uncompensated scientist positions.

  4. Patent law is probably the only area of law (excluding tax law, maybe) where the job market is strong for a law student. The technical degree requirement is a huge hurdle that almost no law students have. If you're coming out of law school with a PhD and no prior legal experience you're still going to land a very good job at a 500+ law firm. But again, i would highly recommend trying to get hired as a technical specialist first before committing to going to law school.

  5. ...again, just a good possible alternative chem career for someone coming to the end of grad school/ postdoc

  6. Thanks for the info. Would love to hear more details about making that transition. Maybe a separate post if you and Chemjobber are interested?