Reviewing the Cutting Edge: A Career Interview with a Patent Examiner

By Stephanie Baringer

Do you strive to know all about the cutting-edge scientific inventions? Do you enjoy thoroughly critiquing a concept or invention? If so, I’ve got a career for you: patent examiner. Patent examiners are federal employees who examine patent applications to decide if the invention is novel enough to be accepted. These inventions can be scientific breakthroughs, and it is the responsibility of the patent examiner to protect intellectual property while facilitating innovation. Without efficient and decisive patent examiners, businesses and markets would suffer as their investments on new inventions stalled. For more information, check out this resource from the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Below is my interview with Medhanit Bahta, a patent examiner in chemistry at the USPTO in Virginia. She encourages trainees who are interested in this career to reach out via LinkedIn.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions presented are her own and do not reflect those of her current or past employers.

Can you please tell me about your career path?

            To start, I graduated with my PhD in Organic Chemistry from the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville in 2007. Towards the end of my time at UT, I applied for so many jobs. It is difficult to fathom how many jobs I applied for. I received many interviews, but they didn’t really go anywhere. Even though I was hoping to get a higher paying position after graduating, I ended up accepting a post-doc position at the National Cancer Institute within the NIH. There, I conducted medicinal chemistry research, targeting enzymes and making small molecules. I actually really enjoyed it! I was interesting to see the biological side of chemistry and test all these compounds I was making. It was an eye-opening experience. My boss was very helpful, and as I collaborated with others, I learned more and more. Then, my career path changed pretty dramatically. I enjoyed benchwork, however, I had my first daughter and the bench was not conducive to being a mother. I personally found it too challenging, so I looked for jobs with better work life balance. This led me to apply to the FDA for a reviewer position, but not being a US citizen restricted this. It was after this that I discovered the US patent office (USPTO) where US citizenship was not a barrier but the position was similar to the FDA. Networking was so important in this discovery, in fact, most of my friends from my post-doc got their jobs from networking. Anyways, I attended a career fair at USPTO and got interviewed by a supervisor. This is common practice at USPTO so that when a position opens, they have a list of people to contact. The interview went so well that I was told to call as soon as I saw a vacancy. I did just that and got the job! It was a bit backwards, interviewing and then applying (laughs). That was in 2012 and I have not looked back since.

What made you leave academia? Did you always know that wasn’t the right path for you?

            Yes, I knew early on that I was not going to go into academia. I discovered when I was a TA that I was simply not fit for it. It was a combination of not liking teaching and applying for grants. Neither were something I wanted to do long term. My goal was to work at a pharmaceutical company because of how much I loved bench work and the challenges it presented.

What are your main responsibilities?

            I manage my all aspects of own work from A to Z. My job performance doesn’t rely on anyone else but myself, which I really enjoy. I spend my time mainly looking through patent claims that get filed from inventors and companies. Ultimately, I have to determine if the invention is novel or not. In accompaniment, I spend time communicating with these clients about their rejections of the claim or allowances to trademark the invention. If they choose to amend the claim based on my comments, I review it again. We continue this back and forth until the claim is allowed or abandoned. This might seem a bit overwhelming at first glance, but when I first started, I was placed in training for about 4 months to learn patent law, along with rules and regulations until it all became second nature.

What does a typical week look like?

            The job relies on production, that is, how many claims cases you complete. Each claims case is worth a certain number of counts based on how much work on your end it requires, and these are counted every two weeks to give an idea of your work output. You are given an application of a claim to examine and get counts that allow you to be judged on productivity. When reviewing an application, I use a lot of databases that includes patent literature, scientific literature, and internal documents to make decisions about the claim. You learn how to search and use the databases, keywords, etc. in the training before you start the job. Once I receive a case, I typically spend 1-2 days searching for information. After I have made a decision, I write up my findings, which takes less time than the searching. USPTO spends a lot of money on these databases so they are very thorough and extensive. They even have searchers who specifically search for something you are unfamiliar with or is particularly difficult to find information on.

What kind of salary can one in this position expect?

            Most people come into the job with only their technical background and no patent law experience unless you are patent agent. [Patent agents are professionally licensed by the USPTO and assist inventors to file patent applications and revise rejected applications. More information can be found here]. That was the case for myself. With that lack of experience, the salary is quite low, around GS7 or GS9 ($37,000-$45,000). However, the promotion potential is very fast; I was quickly promoted and am still promoted often. To get promoted you simply need to consistently meet and exceed production goals, that is review assigned claims cases. Within the first 6 months you can get accelerated to GS11 ($55,000). One great thing about promotions is that they do not require a vacancy at that pay level, which is the case with many other government agencies. Realistically, within 5 years, you can reach GS14 ($93,000). There are also tons of great benefits that you might not think of when you are a graduate student. These include but are not limited to paid vacations, healthcare, and retirement funds. Furthermore, if you are a hard worker, the pay system benefits you even more because you can work overtime and get paid for it. Plus, there are always bonuses if you review more claims than you were initially assigned in a pay period.

What do you like most/least about your job?

            What I like most is the work-life balance, after all it is something that drew me to this job. I have very open and flexible hours, and this has been especially advantageous now with the pandemic and having children. I like the freedom that I am able to take sick leave without even asking. At the end of the day, your job depends on you and how much work you do. I also enjoy the promotion potential and how they happen quickly as long as you meet the requirements and certifications. The path for promotions is very straight forward.

            There isn’t much I dislike about my job. As much I loved benchwork, it was stressful and I have come to not miss it as much as I thought I would.

What traits or skills do you think are most beneficial for this career?

You need a strong general scientific background. Even though I am an organic chemist by training, I don’t only review claims related to that. You have to be able to understand the invention in the claim very quickly in order to evaluate it. The faster you are able to do this, the more work you can get done. It is also very important to be good at self-management. You can be very intelligent, but if you are not organized, you will not do well. Lastly, it is beneficial to be decisive in your verdicts. It does not help to go back and forth on a decision for three days.

What kind of advancement opportunities does your position have?

            Most of the time you can advance up to a GS14 level and stay content with that. Some patent examiners become supervisors to groups of patent examiners. One cool thing is that once you are promoted to a GS12 level, USPTO is willing pay for you to study patent law in law school and earn your Juris Doctor (JD) degree. [With that you can become a patent attorney and both help inventors file for patents and enforce patents by suing parties that infringe upon them.]

Do you think a postdoc is required or beneficial? Why or why not? 

            No, not at all. It is common for people get hired fresh out of grad school. I would even say a postdoc is not really beneficial. A postdoc is specialized training in a very specific area of science, and you are not guaranteed to work cases in your specific background. For me it was more a filler while I continued to apply for stable jobs.

What current issues and trends in the field should those considering this position know about/be aware of?

            While we typically hire twice or three times a year, hiring can be a bit inconsistent for particular specialty units. For a while we were not hiring because some of the review units were running low on cases. There were just very few applications for those units to review and they didn’t need the extra hands. This was all before the pandemic. I’m not sure how the pandemic will impact hiring just yet. We may see fewer patent claims, and as a result fewer job opening. We won’t see those affects for 3-4 years from now. Something else of interest is that we see trends of inventions. When I first started there were a lot of refrigerants, and then I saw a lot of bio-fuel cases. It changes so much that you can’t plan to be expert in an area that will be hot when you apply for the job.

Any last bit of advice for people considering this position?

            If you are looking for non-bench work, I highly recommend this position. It can be stressful to start, because you are required to learn so much about the law and regulations, but that stress doesn’t follow you home. You don’t lay awake at night wonder how you can change your experiment to test your hypothesis. On the flip side, if you love bench work, don’t take this job. You will end up feeling unfulfilled and unhappy. Personally, I love to see different kinds of inventions and novel ideas. There is a challenge to it all that I really enjoy. Surprisingly, I have also discovered I enjoy patent law. If you find value in the same things, this is the right job for you.

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