Susan Su

Susan Su

Patent Examiner
US Patent and Trademark Office
Susan Su
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Susan graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Binghamton University (State University of New York). She went on to complete her Ph.D. in Bioengineering in UC San Diego. Soon after, she joined the US Patent and Trademark Office as a patent examiner, evaluating patent applications to determine the patentability of claimed inventions. She currently works remotely for the USPTO from home in the sunny central California.

B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, Binghamton University, 2001. Ph.D. in Bioengineering, UC San Diego, 2007.
  • I am willing to be contacted about potential job shadowing by interested students.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Susan Su

Hi Annmarie!

I was a Mechanical Engineering student too!  UVA is a fantastic school and I know they have a really excellent Bioengineering program too! You have some excellent questions!  

1) First off, I'm a Patent Examiner, so I'm not familiar with the hiring for other types of jobs in the USPTO (like Patent Attorneys, Trademark Examiners, or any other administrative/legal positions). I can only speak to Patent Examiners.  The USPTO hires people with all levels of education and experience.  Having only a Bachelor's degree would put you at the lowest level/grade at which Patent Examiners are hired, GS-5.  Having a higher GPA will possibly help you get in at a higher step within GS-5 (this is not official, but based on what I gather from others who entered the USPTO at the same time as I did).  Masters are probably hired at the GS-7 level, and PhDs (or people with industry experience) are typically at the GS-9 level.  Those who have worked previously in the USPTO or in patent law firms (i.e. patent prosecution experience) will likely get hired at GS-11 or potentially higher.  

2) We are quite limited in the type of patents we examine.  Of course, how do you define "limited"?  It's interesting that you ask about biomedical devices, since I fall into that category.  However, I imagine you'd never think of diapers as medical devices.  Half of my work load relates to diapers/waste-handling; the second largest group I examine is wound suction/irrigation systems and drug application to skin surface; somewhat infrequently I also examine dialysis systems and connectors used for IVs/vials/syringes.  My office mate of 3 years was in a different unit, and he examined injection devices.  Another friend down the hall from my office was examining medical imaging devices.  So we each have a somewhat narrow field of patent applications to look at.  Honestly, we all initially felt that we were looking at patent applications that are not quite in our field.  But if you think about it, the same engineering concepts apply to all of these devices/systems so in a broad sense, we are totally doing things in our field.  As far as I know, we all got into our units because of our bioengineering background/research, so the USPTO does a decent job at matching experience to the job openings.  As technology evolves over time, some units will shrink and some units will expand quickly, so an examiner will switch to a different unit to pick up a new field (required by management needs), but generally there are very very few examiners changing units.

3) To be fair, the job of a Patent Examiner is really really good.  The first two years at the USPTO are generally quite tough, based on my own experience and those around me.  The good news is that most people still get through the ranks just fine.  Particularly for those joining the USPTO straight out of college, one generally can get from GS-5 to GS-12 in four years.  After that there are some exams and programs that one goes through (just tough enough to make some people “park” at GS-12) in order to get promoted to GS-14, and then beyond that one would no longer be examining patents, but be a manager or involved in other legal/training functions in the USPTO (which is yet another big hurdle for many).  During that time, most have become comfortable with the job, the pay is good, and there is tremendous flexibility in work schedule.  In the last 7 years at the USPTO, I have only come across one person who says she loves examining patents (examining patents is rather monotonous but that’s why it’s predictable and easy to handle after some getting used to).  I can’t tell you what is most important to you, but overwhelming majority of the patent examiners will tell you that this is a good job: job expectations are well-defined, job performance criteria is very clear, working hours are extremely flexible, the pay is quite good, and we never for once feared that we would get laid off even during these tough economic times.  For the foreseeable future I’ll stay a Patent Examiner, since it gives me the flexibility and job predictability.  Currently I don’t have opportunities to do other things in the USPTO (i.e. besides examining patents) because I work from home far from the USPTO main campus, but it’s a choice I made (to work remotely) and as the USPTO opens up more satellite offices, more possibilities will arise in the future.

I may have gone on for too long, but hopefully my answers can help you with an easier time in making these tough life decisions.  Another side note: there is a Law School Clinic program at the USPTO for law students to have hands-on experience in patent prosecution.  Look that up and see if that may be in your future.  Best of luck!

Hi Maggie,

Those are some tough questions! The more glamorous answer to your first question is that collectively the US Patent and Trademark Office has reduced the backlog of patent applications waiting for examination from the peak backlog of about 720,000 two years ago to the fewer than 600,000 right now. The average time that inventors have to wait before their application is looked at by a patent examiner has also been reduced by about 6 months from a peak of 25 months. These improvements are achieved as a result of the collective effort of the thousands of patent examiners, and I have diligently done my share and a little more. On a more personal side, I went from a new hire to a primary examiner in a little over 5 years. Now I am able to work completely independently with inventors/attorneys to determine whether or not the invention can be patented. That is a great deal of autonomy. It is also a lot of responsibility to strike a balance between letting inventors get protection for their inventions but also ensuring that only good ideas can become a patent.

As to your second question, eventually I'm hoping to have an opportunity to work in the policy office of the Patent and Trademark Office. During my short stint as a policy fellow at the National Academies, I found that I enjoyed the opportunity to work in a team and be in an environment where it would be easy to keep abreast of changes outside of my cubicle.

To your third question, I initially chose bioengineering because I was very curious about how the human body works, so choosing a degree that allows me to learn and provides a good job outlook became the obvious choice. The interesting thing is that after spending 5 years working at the bench, I learned that bioengineering research is not what I like to do as a lifelong career. The good thing is, the training I received in school in engineering and research has given me the qualifications to be a policy fellow at the National Academies and now at the Patent and Trademark Office. As I have told many others, learning what you don't like is just as important as learning what you do like. Remember, your field of study should not limit the career opportunities but rather open more doors for you.

Hi Nancy,

Yes, many mechanical engineers do work on medical devices! Mechanical engineering programs (baccalaureate or post-baccalaureate) typically will not ask you to go beyond just one class in introductory level biology, but I'm sure your school will give you the flexibility to take more advanced biology classes (like cell/molecular biology or human anatomy) to fulfill requisites for graduation. In graduate school, the class flexibility actually increases so you can certainly take any class you like. The only challenge you may encounter is that your school may limit class size and give priority to students in the biology/premed programs, or the class you like may conflict with your major classes. Obviously it's beneficial for you to take some biology/premed classes -- they will give you a better understanding of what you'll need to achieve with a medical device and seeing the unique challenges of making or using that device in the human body. In addition to classes, you should search your school's website to see what the mechanical and biology professors do in their research labs. Find one that interests you and go talk to the professor for an opportunity to work there for a semester or a year. You may be able to shadow a graduate student/researcher that works with medical devices. Don't be discouraged if a class or the lab research/assistantship is not the best experience. Remember, it's just as important to know what you dislike as it is to know what you like. Have fun and try as many things as your hectic college life allows!

Hi Pamela! Patent is something that an inventor tries to get to have legal protection of using his own invention. It is sort of like a deed for a house. The inventor submits an application, in the "claims" section the owner/inventor would declare in great detail what the invention covers, kind of like a deed should say exactly where the edges of the property are in order to identify to whom the land belongs. Once the patent application is approved, it gives the owner legal right of the invention. When other people try to make the invention that is declared in the "claims" section, they will need to get authorization from the patent owner/inventor. So a patent examiner determines if an application can be approved. We focus on the "claims" section and compare the invention declared in the "claims" to inventions that had been described/made in the past. So we search past patents, library databases, scientific journals, etc., to find similar past inventions. If the "claims" declare an invention that is unique and novel compared to old inventions, then the inventor gets approval to receive a patent. Each patent examiner looks at one or a few types of patents, like I look at simple medical devices but other examiners may look at chemical compounds, engines, electronic devices, etc. I was qualified as a patent examiner because of the engineering classes I took. In this job, we end up doing more of legal writing than real engineering. We just need basic engineering principles so that we can understand the invention in the application (and the old inventions that we have to look through). The real work of this job is in applying the law when we approve/reject patent claims. Hopefully this paints a slightly clearer picture of this profession for you! Susan

Hi Sravanti, I'm glad to hear that you take an interest in bioengineering. It's really a very broad field, ranging from strict engineering practices to strictly biological studies, based on your eventual job/research focus. While being weak at physics may put you at a disadvantage, particularly during your college days, you really shouldn't get discouraged. I can tell you that I was only good with the mechanics portion of physics and struggled quite a bit with the electromagnetics portion. Interesting enough, a number of my friends have greater aptitude for understanding electromagnetics than mechanics. Additionally, you may also come to realize that your teacher's teaching method may be the reason that you're good or bad at something. So don't let one semester of physics scare you and give yourself another couple of semesters to figure out your academic strengths and weaknesses. I don't really know the difference between applied biology and bioengineering (it's also commonly known as biomedical engineering). I think applied biology (likely to be in the biology department) puts you in a curriculum much more focused on biology whereas bioengineering (in the engineering department) would require you to take advanced engineering courses with only 4 or 5 basic biology courses. Most colleges allow their students to easily transfer between majors, particularly since everyone in science or engineering would need to take biology/chemistry, physics, math, and a bunch of liberal arts courses during the first year. So even after you enter college, you can continue to learn about your interests and make adjustments. And it doesn't end there. After your bachelor's degree, you can also go for a master's or doctorate degree to become more specialized in a field. Go with your heart and know that there's no wrong decision because at least you can find out what you don't enjoy. Once you find out what you really like, you'll excel at it very quickly. Good luck!

I don't think there's a so-called best branch of engineering for a girl. You need to go with your interests first, and then there are other factors that may influence your decision, such as working environment and pay. I think currently computer engineers get paid the most (for a starting salary), and they can work on integrating hardware (such as circuit design and power supply to a computer) and software (such as writing programs and operating systems). Electrical and electronic engineers come in second in terms of starting salary. Electrical engineers can work on a variety of jobs from designing the power grid of a city to a microchip for a cell phone, while electronic engineers (sometimes considered to be a subgroup of electrical engineers) typically work on smaller-scale products such as computers, digital cameras, GPS system inside a car, etc. Civil engineers typically work with architects on the structures on buildings and bridges, so the engineering concepts are easier to visualize and the results easier to see. The first 3 fields of engineering generally won't require you to be outdoors (maybe with the exception of working on a power grid) whereas civil engineering may involve occasional trips to construction sites. Keep in mind that even within a single discipline, the jobs can be very different. Take advantage of chances in school where you can visit engineering companies or contact engineering alumni to find out more about the daily tasks of their job. If you are concerned with how many female classmates you'll find as you study engineering, civil engineering generally has about 30-40% girls whereas the other three have about 10-20%, but those numbers are slowly rising.

Hi Sara, Biomedical Engineering is a very broad discipline, and that's what makes it interesting. It covers many areas such as genetic engineering, molecular/cellular biology, biomechanics, biomaterials, computer simulation of biological processes, prosthetics, etc. Basically you can get into any engineering or science major in college and still find a way to apply what you learn there into biomedical engineering. The first thing is that you need to find out what interests you about the cardiovascular system. Do you want to understand the blood flow pattern in the large blood vessels? You would probably need to have a strong background in fluid mechanics (mechanical engineering) and just the basics of human anatomy. But if you want to understand how the blood cells or cells that form the vessel wall respond to the forces of the blood flow, then you may need to spend more time in molecular and cellular biology. If you are thinking of designing the control system for pacemakers or defibrillators, you may need to know more electrical engineering. And if you want to explore how pharmaceutical drugs affect the cardiovascular system, maybe a chemical engineering background would give you an advantage. All in all, I think you would need to look for chances to talk to working biomedical engineers (not someone who just has a degree in biomedical engineering), and when you're in college, shadow a graduate student or a postdoc in a lab to see if that line of work is what you truly want to pursue (like will you be working with devices, computers, animals, cell cultures, chemical agents, etc.). You don't have to have a degree in biomedical engineering to work as a biomedical engineer. It's more important that you find what you actually enjoy doing.