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From Academia to IP Law: Making the Transition

I was unsatisfied and unfulfilled in STEM Academia. Now I am training to be a Patent and Trade Marks Attorney.

If you know, you know – Academia can be rough. The short-term contracts. Unpaid outreach work, unpaid peer review. The 80/20 research/teaching contract that is more like 10/110. Knowing that your research project could really progress with just a little more time and attention. In Australia, roughly 25% of PhDs go on to have academic employment (i.e., at a university or research institute), and it seems even fewer end up in a long-term career track. Then there are the long hours, publish or perish culture, and did I mention the short-term contracts? 

You might love a lot of what you do – your research project is your baby, after all. Gaining insights into the fundamental mechanisms of the universe can be a real rush. Interacting with students can be deeply fulfilling. But after a long week of experimental dead-ends and late nights spent marking first-year lab reports – just label the axes on your figures, people – you might be starting to look around for greener pastures. Maybe you have looked into going in to industry, or government, or reskilling to focus purely on education.

That was me. I looked at each option, and none seemed quite the right fit. Then I found Patents.

Of course, I already knew about Patents and Patent Attorneys as a general concept, but I had dismissed it as a career path – surely it is a kind of lawyer? And I am a scientist. Next.

What I didn’t know – and what I’m now telling you – is that Patent Attorneys always start out as scientists or engineers before training in the necessary law. As a scientist or engineer, you are adept at solving problems, reading and preparing documentation, and have a fascination with innovation and discovery. You are also already familiar with life-long learning. These are the very same skills that will make you a great Patent Attorney.

The Good

The sheer variety of work you engage with as a Patent and Trade Mark Attorney is staggering. After working on the same problem for years as a researcher, it is a breath of fresh air. Not to mention, delving into the study of the law is an exciting change of pace – and not just Australian and New Zealand law, but getting familiar with major trading partners like the US, Europe and China. The way the day-to-day work is conducted is not unlike the process of getting a research paper published, so you will probably fall into the groove of it quite quickly.

At the professional level, the prospect for advancement as an Attorney is also more likely compared to in the Academy. This is not to say that life as an Attorney is 100% stress-free and full of kittens and rainbows. It’s still a job, after all. And the pitfalls of academia are not uniquely overcome by a professional life in IP – no doubt other industries are similar. A career as a Patent Attorney is quite stable – as long as there is innovation, a skilled professional will be required to ensure it is legally protected. What’s more, as an academic, you may have heard of this thing called work-life balance. It exists! Or, at the very least, it can be made to.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that working with Trade Marks and Designs is quite enjoyable, despite not necessarily utilising the technical talents I picked up in STEM. The challenges involved give a good bit of variety compared to working with the very technical aspects of patent specifications, while still building from a shared skill set acquired through legal study.

The Not-So-Good

Look, we can’t avoid talking about it. If you are an early career researcher in Australia, you might be taking a pay cut by becoming a trainee Attorney. Australian post-doc positions pay pretty well! If you have a mortgage or a family, that can be a real blow and even an impossible barrier to overcome. I get it. The upside is that the pay should scale up relatively rapidly and, what’s more, come quite consistently. On the other hand if you are coming right out of doing your PhD, life as a trainee is likely to be a financial step-up. Similarly if you have been a post-doc internationally.

Deadlines are a constant. In academia, deadlines can sometimes be more of a suggestion, but they are a constant fact of life in IP.

The Unaesthetically Pleasing

If you are looking to transition out of Academia, you’ve probably been through more formal education than you can stand at this point. You might have rejoiced that your last exam was behind you and that you would be the one teaching classes and not taking them.

Choosing to embark on a career in IP means going back to school. In Australia and New Zealand, that means a Masters Degree specialising in Intellectual Property law. Two years further part time studying, alongside the practical experience gained from working in an IP firm. At least the Master’s qualification also counts as meeting the core competencies for registration as an attorney. And it is just the first two years of a potentially long career.

Or maybe you just love learning, and this is more firmly in the ‘good’ subheading! I’m grudgingly glad for you.

Consider It

If you’ve got this far, I suggest talking to a Patent Attorney to learn more. Things will be different at different firms, for example. It can be a big change, and a new challenge. But that’s the exciting thing, right? If you want to know more, I wrote about the things I learned in my first few months as a trainee attorney here. My colleague Caleb also recently wrote about his day-to-day as an Associate here.

If you love solving new problems every day, working with innovators and entrepreneurs and getting to understand developing technology while building a long and prosperous professional career, make the change! Life as a Patent Attorney might just be for you.