Having recently been asked to contribute to this blog, I needed to pause and think. Given it is some 25 years since I completed my PhD and proceeded to forge a career as a registered patent attorney, I did wonder whether my experience of 25 years ago would still ring true to the current generation of PhD candidates. Anyway, it is not for me to conclude that. All I can do is tell at least some of my story and leave that issue for you to consider.
With 25 years under my belt, I can look with rose coloured glasses back at my time as a PhD student with a large degree of fondness. It was a time when one could pursue a line of academic enquiry, engage in free thinking, bounce thoughts and ideas off interesting colleagues, and do great research. Of course, my rose coloured glasses conveniently obscure that it was also a time of hand to mouth existence, endless knock backs to funding requests, interminable waits for equipment to be built and/or repaired, and significant frustration. I do sometimes wonder if anything has changed.
Fairly early on in my PhD I had a feeling that while I loved science, it would not be the career for me. I sensed that I would be doing something different. And that something would be outside on the academic world. The question was what?
Fortunately, one day on fronting up to the lab, my supervisor announced that we were off to the CBD. The reason, to see a patent attorney. Why, well somewhat surprisingly for the time, my university had agreed to patent an invention I was working on.
That day spent describing my research to a patent attorney opened my eyes. I was impressed by a number of things, including the intellectual rigour of the questioning, the speed at which the attorney understood what was being described, and their ability to convert that description into a written document that I now understand was a patent specification. Oh, and the “free” sandwiches they offered during the meeting were great as well. No seriously, I was enormously impressed. I had not expected to be dealing with someone scientifically trained and the fact that a patent attorney had such a background was a revelation.
While at that stage I was two years away from completing my PhD, I followed my hunch that this was a potential career for me and began the process of seeking to find employment as a patent attorney.
Over a period of many months, I sought to understand the role, what was needed, how one qualified, and the different firms that might be potential employers. I also recall askance looks from family, friends and fellow students when I said I was committing to still further university study (in IP law) following what by then had been 8 years of university life.
What I only realised in hindsight was that that the time spent understanding this potentially new career was really important, in some ways more important than the subject of my PhD. It demonstrated desire and a willingness to learn. What that effort also taught me was that one never can be ill prepared when dealing with the commercial world. Time and effort to prepare are always worthwhile. When considering potential new employees, an academic background might open a door, but other things are likely to see you invited through that door. I still remember the delight at being offered a job as a trainee patent attorney at FB Rice. 25 years on, it is easy to look back and know I made the right decision.
In considering the transition from academia to industry, what I know I didn’t appreciate at that point was how many other skills I would need to develop if I was going to have a successful career. Like many scientists and engineers, for example, I needed to develop my abilities in human interaction. Don’t hide behind the stereotype of the nerdy scientist or awkward engineer (if that’s your rap) that has no social skills. Such skills can be learned. There are no “back room“ roles in industry any more. You have to be engaging, and willing and capable of engaging people in conversation (even those that don’t understand your science). So, develop those skills, and seek feedback on how you can improve. You’ll never regret it.
What else did I learn through in those early years?
You probably know more than you think you do, but you still have much to learn. Most people are prepared to help you and will be (sometimes incredibly) generous with their time. Don’t waste such opportunities and be thankful. Also, in 20 years, please remember that generosity and pass on your time to the next generation.
Also, people will be impressed that you have a PhD, for about 5 mins. After that, other aspects about you are way more important. For example, do you treat reports with respect? Do you follow up when you say you will? Are you prepared to muck in and work as part of a team to meet a deadline? Ultimately, how you act as a human being will be way more important than your PhD.
About the author:
Brett Lunn is Managing Partner of FB Rice, and one of Australia’s most experienced and pragmatic intellectual property (IP) specialists. Having moved largely to an advisory capacity in recent years, Brett specialises in providing strategic advice in the corporate sphere, advising a range of businesses from corporations and SMEs to start-ups and research institutions.