Career paths are not always straightforward. Choosing a scientific vocation can involve challenging and unanticipated decisions, often with no tour guide to follow. Some scientists may hop from the lab bench into industry while others progress up the academic research ladder. Others decide to leave research behind and explore science communication, teaching, setting up their own business or working in technical roles outside of the lab.
While a love of science can lead to varied and fulfilling careers, it may be lonely trying to evaluate the next step to take. Recently, initiatives such as “This is what a scientist looks like” and the #IamScience discussions, have shone a bright light on scientific career trajectories. In our latest Soapbox Science series, we focus on some interesting examples of scientific career transitions. We will hear from different contributors, all of whom use their scientific background in their current jobs, asking each of them the same questions: how did you decide on your career path, what are your motivations, and what does the future hold?
In this post Toby Thompson talks about his transition from PhD to patent attorney.
Toby graduated with a first in chemistry from the University of Nottingham in 1999, and went on to complete a PhD in organic chemistry from the same university in 2003. He spent 5 years working as a medicinal chemist for a pharmaceutical company, before moving into the patent profession, qualifying as a UK and European patent attorney in 2011. Toby currently works in private practice for a firm of patent and trade mark attorneys, and is based in their London office. Outside of work, he enjoys playing guitar and piano, running, and following the recent resurrection of the England rugby team.
What is your scientific background?
My interest in a career involving science took off whilst studying for a chemistry degree at the University of Nottingham. I was carrying out an undergraduate research project looking at synthetic routes towards taxol, a natural product approved as an anti-cancer agent, and that was the first time that I appreciated that I might be able to use my understanding of chemistry to make something that has a use in the real world. I stayed on at Nottingham to complete a PhD in Organic Synthesis, looking at new building blocks for supramolecular chemistry based on cyclopeptide natural products.
I then worked for the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca for 5 years. My first role was as a medicinal chemist in lead optimisation, working to identify new candidate drugs useful in treating respiratory and inflammatory diseases. Following on from that, I had responsibility for a group working at the interface between medicinal chemistry and process R&D, developing improved synthetic routes to candidate drugs and providing larger batches of compounds for further studies.
What is your current job?
I am currently a Patent Attorney working in private practice for the firm Abel & Imray as part of their Life Sciences team. My role includes drafting and filing patent applications, prosecuting patent applications through to grant, defending our clients’ patents and opposing third party patents, and advising our clients on whether they have freedom to use their products in view of patents owned by others.
Some people can find aspects of the job rather dry, so it is not necessarily for everyone. However, meeting with inventors and understanding their new technology is a key part of my role. Persuading patent examiners that our clients’ inventions are new and inventive is another important aspect, and good advocacy skills are key. Probably the most important part of the job is being able to give clear advice that is relevant to our clients’ commercial goals. Lastly, as a patent attorney, you can never miss a deadline!
Can you detail the steps you have taken to get to your current position?
“I remember being asked in interviews to describe how a paperclip works and how to use a cheese-grater.”
When I left university I had little knowledge of patents, but in industry the focus was on obtaining protection for the results of our research. Part of my role involved having regular contact with in-house attorneys to discuss possible new patent filings and I became interested in the possibility of a career change. I found the interview process quite challenging and it was certainly very different from anything I had previously experienced. I remember being asked in interviews to describe how a paperclip works and how to use a cheese-grater.
I joined the London office of Abel & Imray in 2008 as a trainee patent attorney, and qualified as a UK and European Patent Attorney last year. That required sitting separate sets of UK and European exams, covering topics such as patent law, drafting and prosecution of patent applications, and infringement and validity of granted patents. The subject-matter of the exams varied greatly, ranging from multi-storey car park layouts to toothbrushes with squeezable handles which dispense toothpaste onto the bristles.
“…my current role involves helping inventors who are working at the boundaries of science, and it is always interesting to learn about their inventions.”
One of the things I thought I would miss most about leaving pharmaceutical research was that, when there was a breakthrough in the project, progress could be rapid and it was an exciting place to be. However, my current role involves helping inventors who are working at the boundaries of science, and it is always interesting to learn about their inventions. The challenge as a patent attorney is to combine your scientific knowledge with an appreciation of the law, so that our clients can obtain the best protection possible. Although the challenges are different from those facing a research chemist, I think they are equally rewarding.
Where do you see your career in the future?
I hope to progress in my current career as a patent attorney, increasing my experience and building expertise. The law in this field is always developing, and now seems to be a particularly interesting time to be involved in patents, given plans in Europe to establish a Unitary Patent and a Unified Patents Court. Although I enjoyed my time as a research chemist very much, I have no plans to return to the bench (which is probably a good idea – after 4 years away I might be dangerous).
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
“I would recommend talking to an attorney to find out more about what the job involves.”
I would definitely recommend the patents profession to anyone wishing to make use of their scientific background but who does not want to work directly in research. The profession does not have as high a profile as some others and I would recommend talking to an attorney to find out more about what the job involves. When deciding to make the change, I found it very helpful to speak with a patent attorney who had made a similar move from research into IP some years previously. There is also a lot of information on the Inside Careers website, and on the website of our institute (the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys).
For anyone who is interested in moving into patents, there is often a lot of competition to get into the patent profession, and it may take some time to find a position. From my experience, employers are usually looking for a strong scientific background – a scientific degree is essential – coupled with good analytical and language skills. An important feature of the job is the ability to understand and explain new concepts.
For more career transitions, check out Ian Mulvany’s post, Paige Brown’s post, Alom Shaha’s post, Rebecca Caygill’s post and Asha Tanna’s post. You can also follow the conversation online using the #Transitions hashtag.