Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Patent Examiner, United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

Submitted by Lori Conlan April 4, 2013

Last year we had a number of postdocs from the NIH Intramural Research Program leave to start their careers with USPTO, here we interview 3 that started in May of 2012

Names: Sean Barron, PhD; Andrea McCollum, PhD; and Julie Wu, PhD Location: Alexandria, VA

Time in current positions: 8 months (all started at the same time)


  • Sean: the affect of nicotine on the hippocampus with Chris McBain at NICHD.
  • Andrea: biomarkers in ovarian cancer with Elise Kohn at NCI.
  • Julie: the role of mTOR for aged related processes with Toren Finkel at NHLBI.

What is a patent examiner? A patent examiner reviews applications and determines their patentability according to the laws and regulations for the US government. Patent applications need to comply with US laws in their format, organization, subject matter, etc., and contain strong support for the claims. Investigating the evidence of those claims and making sure that no one else patented or published the idea is where the patent examiner turns sleuth. The work requires checking publications, conferences, books, and other potential outlets to ensure that the item being patented is not already in the public domain.

How did they find this job? Andrea conducted informational interviews early on to determine where she wanted to go next in her career. With her interest sparked by speaking to people in patent work, Andrea took the FAES course: Intellectual Property and Patent Prosecution for Scientists. Sean took the same course as a way of introduction to the patent world after hearing about technology transfer at an OITE event. Julie applied for the position after researching a job post on an organizational e-mail. So each person had a different level of preparation for the job.

What skills are needed? Everyone agreed that an ideal candidate would have a good attention to detail, be quick to learn, and, as Sean put it, “be comfortable being uncomfortable”. The USPTO reads patents on every sector of science (and more), and a patent examiner needs be able to quickly process an application that may be barely related to the science they have previously seen. Additionally, examining patents is a high-paced environment, and there is an expectation that a certain number of patents will be reviewed each pay period. Sean views these targets as a positive in that you always have a good idea of how well you are performing. Excellent time management and organizational skills help an examiner deal with the fast pace necessary for the high turn around requirement.

What adjustments did you make moving to the USPTO? Becoming a patent examiner requires a change in mindset from that of a bench scientist. As a bench scientist, you are expected to be an expert at everything you do and to know your field in great detail. As a patent examiner, time is a luxury. You need to learn just enough to be able to accept or deny a patent with confidence. This fast pace requires a big shift from knowing a lot about a little to knowing a little about a lot.

What preparation can people do to follow in your path? In addition to the course previously mentioned, FAES offers several technology transfer related courses that can be applied for credit for a Masters of Science degree at the University of Maryland University College’s (UMUC) Graduate School of Management and Technology. Detailing in the Office of Technology Transfer is also a good way to check if intellectual property is a field you are interested in (see the recent Catalyst article: Details, details, details: Leaving the bench, but staying in science). A nice thing about working as a patent examiner is there is no previous experience required. You will be trained (extensively) in the patent process after placing in the job. Keep in mind when applying to emphasize the breadth of your knowledge rather than the depth. You probably will not be placed in the area you researched, so it is important to show intellectual flexibility.

Is this career for everyone? Although all three of our alumni love their jobs, they also recognized that the career of a patent examiner is not for everyone. The pay and work life balance is excellent, the science is fascinating, and you can quickly gain control of your own career in the USPTO. However, the work is pretty independent, desk-based, and fast-paced. But, for the right people this is a career they can love.

NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Field Application Scientist

Submitted by Lori Conlan April 16, 2013

Name: Jill Hesse, PhD
Job title and company: Field Application Scientist, GenoLogics
Location: Raleigh, NC
How long you’ve been in your current job: 9 months
Postdoc advisor, IC, and subject: Richard Paules, NIEHS, micro-RNA’s role in damage response

What do you do as a Field Application Scientist? We joke that I drink coffee and run my mouth professionally, but basically my job is divided into two parts: on the pre-sale side, I visit customers and give them demonstrations with high-level information on how my company can help them and their science. On the post-sale side, I help coordinate the implementation of their software and provide computer training to get the customer into the software to get the information they need.

What was the hardest thing about transitioning into your career from bench? I think the interesting thing about moving from bench science is there’s a fear that you’ve never done anything other than bench science, and we know that we are really good at bench science, but what if I am not good at anything else? The second thing is that it’s just a different mindset. Science is very much a you’ll-get-there-when-you-get-there pace. When you go to industry positions, there’s much more of an immediate timeline and things move at a faster pace than the research environment.

What is your favorite aspect being a Field Application Scientist? I like being a Field Application Scientists for two reasons: One, I get to talk about science at the 10,000 foot level. Instead of talking about your favorite mutation or protein, you get to talk about things really affecting critical research and clinical trials. The work also changes all the time. With research, you might get one particular little tiny thing that you do over and over and over again everyday – now I talk to different people all over the country about different things every day.

What was your job search like? I knew relatively soon after coming into my post-doc that I didn’t want to stay at the bench forever, so I started looking to see what was out there and explored what my options were so I’d be ready for the right job when it came along. After I decided that something in the sales side of the world would be interesting, I started looking at field application jobs. They’re a good way to get your foot in the sales door. You can take the science you know and apply it to whatever technology a company happens to sell.
I’m actually one of the very few that applied for a job on-line and had a recruiter call me instead of an HR rep. I had a really good experience with the recruiter. We did a couple of interviews before ever getting passed on to the company that I currently work for. She did some of the initial vetting and helped me throughout the process with the scheduling and giving me interviewing pointers, telling me the most likely interviewers and what they might ask. It was great.

What soft skills are needed for this position? In this job, you need the ability to talk with anyone about anything, including talking about science to talking about items that I’m selling to talking about what happened today in the weather. For researchers, getting out and learning not to be afraid to talk to people is really useful. Additionally, anything you can do that will show that you are a self-starter. Teach yourself to do something new or get a certification you didn’t need for your post-doc. People I interviewed with found it interesting that I had the initiative to learn things on my own, like some basic bioinformatics I taught myself to analyze a data set. These jobs tend to move fairly rapidly. Sometimes you’ll be given a project and told “just work things out”. The fact that you can learn something and not afraid to do so will translate well.

Last bits of advice: Everybody is given advice that you need to network, you need to get out more, and you need to meet people. While I didn’t get my job that way, going out and doing all that networking was very important. I had been involved with the NIEHS Training Association (NTA), which broadened my network my network of postdocs, faculty members, and staff at NIEHS. My involvement as the postdoc representative on several NIEHS wide committees gave me the opportunity to learn more about how government science works and exposed me to people I might not have otherwise met. Additionally, the committee work helped me develop skills in talking and negotiating with my superiors. When I got my job, my previous experience networking had made me unafraid of people even if I didn’t understand their science. Networking is useful, both for getting the job and in developing skills that we sometimes miss at the bench, such as talking about things that aren’t specifically related to our science.