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  • A patent examiner, such as me, works for the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  This is a government agency that reviews patent applications and decides whether or not the application presents an invention worthy of a patent (and the legal protection a patent warrants).  A patent agent usually works in a law firm or the legal department of a major company, and his/her job is to draft patent applications and to help the inventor get a patent for the invention.  In a really simplified sense, patent examiners and patent agents work against each other.  But that’s just a very very simplified view.  There is no need for a patent agent to have a law degree or pass the STATE bar exam, but a patent agent has to pass a PATENT bar exam in order to be able to represent an inventor in front of the USPTO.  Note the difference between these bar exams.  A patent bar exam only requires you to know the patent laws but a state bar exam would require you to know things like criminal law, corporate law, etc.  I’m not sure what is the best way to go about becoming a patent agent.  A science or engineering background is a must, which you do have.  With only a bachelor’s degree it may be difficult for you to get into a law firm, so maybe you can start with some major company as a technician/scientist and attempt to transfer into their legal department.  The more expensive way but more direct way to becoming a patent agent is to do a master’s degree/certificate (patent law/patent agent program), but be forewarned that this may not give you the job guarantee you may hope for.  A law degree will make you better qualified and actually then you can try to become a patent attorney (a step up from patent agent), which will give you much better pay and many more opportunities, but of course the initial investment is 3  years of classes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition.  The last but most economical way is to apply for a job with the USPTO as a patent examiner, and after you have achieved a certain grade (usually takes 3-5 years, during which time you get paid!), you can quit the job and receive a patent agent registration number, which allows you to represent inventors in front of the USPTO.  Some examiners have done that in the past and left the USPTO to work for a law firm.  I don’t know how much patent agents get paid, but usually by the time an examiner has achieved that level of expertise, s/he would not want to leave the USPTO because it’s not easy to come across a place that can give you the work flexibility and job security.  The USPTO is currently not hiring, but I think you can sign up for alerts on the USAJOBS website for the first opportunity.  If you choose to go back to school, check the USAJOBS website for externship opportunities with the USPTO.  They are not paid, but may beef up your resume.  Good luck! 

  • Hi Ahmed,

    My general understanding is that yes, you can get a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and then go to medical school.  I think (but I don't know for certain) that it does not matter what your bachelor's degree is in, it only matters that you have taken the required classes.  Each medical school has their own unique requirements, but in general they would require that by the time you apply, you have already taken advanced biology and chemistry courses like cell biology, physiology, physical chemistry, organic chemistry (a whole year of it), etc.  These are classes that you would not normally take if you're a mechanical engineering student, so these would be additional work load besides your engineering requisites.  Obviously medical schools would also require physics and math, but by doing a mechanical engineering degree, you would normally have taken enough of those classes, so they would not be adding to your school load.  Don't forget about the social sciences such as history, economics, philosophy, etc., but I would imagine that your mechanical engineering degree already require you to take enough of those classes.  Last but certainly not the least, you may choose to take GRE Subject Tests, in particular if your MCAT scores are a little less than ideal.  But GRE Subject Tests are only secondary considerations, so spend your energy on the real MCAT.  Additional requirements for a typical medical school include volunteer experiences in healthcare/medical facility, scientific research projects, a great essay, and excellent recommendation letters from your university professors.


  • Hi Dianne,

    Since your question is very specific to the USPTO job, I'm just going to respond personally.

    With a JD and having passed the patent bar, I think you should be starting at the GS-9 level, probably step 7 or 8 since you don't have any work experience.  I am slightly surprised that you didn't get offered a job, but I guess the USPTO has gone through a lot of restructuring in the past few years and now the selection criteria may be a little tougher than when I first got hired.  I heard they have put more emphasis on personality match, since attrition has always been a big problem here. While many examiners find this to be a steady job with great flexibility, it's very monotonous and unstimulating.  Good thing DC is a pretty nice place to live at least for a couple of years.  You'll need to have worked 2 years before being eligible to start working from home full time.  You are likely to qualify for teleworking a couple of days a week after one year.

    Best of luck to you!


  • Hi Divya,

    Bioegineering is generally a broader description than biomedical engineering since it also encompasses agricultural engineering.  Specializing in biomedical engineering for a masters degree would be very appropriate.  If you know you are interested in the medical side of things you can try to take more of those classes during your initial undergraduate studies.

  • Hi Ella!
    As a patent examiner I write "office action" on a daily basis, and that is an official document that gets mailed to the inventor (or their attorney if there is one). An office action generally has a few forms and a word document where I explain why the patent application can or cannot become a patent using plain language with citations of the law.  As a brief example, when I explain that the current patent claims cannot become a patent because Reference A shows the same thing, I would say "Claim 1 is rejected under 35 U.S.C. 102(a) as anticipated by Reference A because Reference A discloses ..."  In this case "35 U.S.C 102(a)" is the law that gives me basis on which I make the decision.  For most people who do not have law experience, the office actions do read like foreign language because of the frequent reference to law.  There are also some terms like "obvious" and "inherent" that carry very specific legal meaning in the patent world so we need to be very careful how we use those words in our writing.
    About 10% of the writing I do is composing emails to my supervisor and other colleagues regarding work, typically asking or answering a question, but those are individual emails so I write them as if I'm talking to the recipient(s).  This job does not require any memo or presentations.  Most of my colleagues do have similar educational background as me, since the patent office hires mainly people with STEM background as patent examiners.  Some of them also have law degrees or even worked in law firms, but those of us who knew nothing about law would get our legal training on the job during the first half a year or so.
    We are not required to read any journals or blogs, and it's unfortunate that I am not much of a self-motivator so I don't look for online discussions on patent law or news on intellectual property in general.  I am more interested in general science so I scan the science news once a week or so.  Of course, if there's something making the headlines in intellectual property, I take a closer look too. 
  • Dear Aanam,

    I have to be honest, I don't truly know the USPTO hiring process, so I'm not sure the advice I give below will be accurate.  I got the following tips from a professional resume writer who was giving a workshop to government contractors on how to apply for permanent federal jobs.  Obviously you already have the degrees to back you up, so you're half way there.  The other thing is that when you answer the KSA questions in the application, make sure you link your many years of experiences to the keywords in those questions.  I don't know if it'll be a question in the application, but one important attribute a patent examiner should have is to make quick decisions (those who have that attribute tend to have an easier time at the job). Since patent examination is never black and white, you'll need to be able to decide on one path and give your best rationale to support that path (e.g. reject for reason x or allow for reason y).  As we all know, the federal government gets so many applications that the first step is to use keywords and degrees to narrow down the eligible pool.  I guess then your resume will be send to the hiring managers to figure out which unit(s) would match your qualifications best.  With your degrees and experiences, you're most likely going to get hired at GS-9 step-8, maybe even step 9.  That's what a friend of mine got hired at and he also had a masters and several years of experience.  I got hired at the same level with no experience but a doctoral degree.  The only people who get hired at GS-11 or higher are those who have either worked in patent prosecution or are previous patent examiners.  Oh, the grades for a patent examiner starts at 5, then 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, & 14. You'll need to be a supervisor to be GS-15 (or one of few examiners dealing with a different category of applications).  As far as I know, you'll have to be GS-12 and been with the USPTO for at least 2 years before being able to work from home 100% (which means you'll no longer have your own space at the Office).  There are also the programs of teleworking from home 1 day a week or 32hrs every two weeks, and I think eligibility is at GS-11 and at least one year with the Office.  Of course, you'll have to be rated "fully successful" to be able to qualify for any teleworking/hoteling.  Depending on how well you do and how well you get along with your supervisor, I've known people who work extra long hours for 9-10 straight days and then take a 4-5 day weekend to go home; and repeat biweek after biweek for years.  It's not easy to do that since patent examining takes a lot of brain work, but I guess the desire to spend time with family outside of DC can give one the drive and focus.  So in addition to working from home, there are other ways to not have to show up to the office 5 days a week.

    Best of luck in your job application process!


  • 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 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!

  • posted by Pamela from Davenport on December 21, 2012
    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
  • 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 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!
  • 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.
    Dear Sara, You have selected an incredibly exciting and growing field, so congratulations! My advice is that since there are very few academic programs that provide combined science & engineering doctoral programs, try to attain some internships in biomedical engineering to get a sense of working in industry. There are some big companies with huge internship programs, such as Boston Scientific, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, and there are hundreds of smaller companies (especially in Cambridge, MA) that may have some summer internships here and there. It is important to gain some working experience, because when it comes to engineering, school setting and industry setting can be very different. With a few summers of engineering work experience, you can attend graduate school in cardiovascular physiology and gain the science background. I think combined skills in science & engineering will become more and more valuable as we continue to push biological research and technology. Good luck and please feel free to contact me if you have further questions! Chi-An Wang
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