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4 Red-Hot Intellectual Property Positions For PhDs

I just got off the phone with an old friend of mine. 

We were researchers at the same lab back in our university days.

We had lost touch, but when he found me on LinkedIn I couldn’t wait to hear what he’s done since graduation. 

He told me he had not wound up in chemistry, which had been his major. Biomolecular chemistry, he reminded me.

Instead, he decided to pursue a career in patent law. 

Here’s his transition story:

I was in the process of earning my PhD in biomolecular chemistry.

That’s where I learned that patents were unrecognized by most researchers as a source of critical information. 

I hadn’t given patents much thought until my research touched on them. There was a whole world, adjacent to bench work and research, that seemed genuinely really fascinating. 

My interest in Intellectual Property deepened the more I learned about it.

So I started to attend webinars and courses online. I discovered that there were actually a wealth of opportunities available to PhDs in the field of Intellectual Property. 

I was fortunate to obtain a patent editor position with Chemical Abstracts. 

Here, I identified and pursued new products and services not yet available to corporate and firm practitioners. 

For example, I headed a team to introduce a biopolymer sequence database comprising sequences identified only in patents. 

Due to this idea, I was approached to be a patent liaison/technical analyst/searcher for a multinational pharmaceutical company. 

Within a year, I became a Patent Agent. 

Due to my expertise, which I kept up on technically and legally, the company requested I attend law school at night.

They paid for my law school expenses and tuition under the condition that I continued to work full-time. 

It wasn’t easy. I worked 4 days a week, and attended law school every evening from 6 to 10 pm. 

But it was well worth it.

A group of young professionals shake hands as if being introduced.

Become The Bridge Between Academia And Industry

A career in intellectual property is one of the most exciting and in-demand careers I see PhDs considering today.


As researchers, we’re used to working with and translating all kinds of different information. But seeing the outcome of all that research can be a rarity.

We collect and analyze the data. We even find trends.

But we have no real experience actually doing anything with the trends we’ve uncovered or the data that we’ve analyzed. 

A career in intellectual property is highly rewarding if you’ve ever wanted to follow the data to its conclusion – actionable results.

And action, in science, is just another word for innovation.

This industry sits directly at the intersection of data analysis and market readiness.

It’s a broad field that, for many PhDs, strikes the perfect balance between academia and industry.

The process of sharing discoveries between universities and businesses is called technology transfer

Technology transfer, also known as commercialization, is an industry-university collaboration. It describes the process of scientific ideas and discoveries from an academic institution being transferred to industry.

This field is important to both industry and academia. Universities aren’t capable of commercializing their own inventions, and their industry counterparts don’t have a research lab’s resources. Intellectual property professionals forge and enrich an alliance between the two.

Those industry liaisons go by many names. They are Tech Transfer Officers, Patent Examiners, and Patent Attorneys. Their job is to help information travel from the research lab to its final destination – the mass market.

As more discoveries are made and more patents are filed, the demand for technology transfer professionals will increase.

Today we’re going to look at a few of the most common careers I see PhDs gravitate to in the intellectual property industry.

1. Technology Transfer Officer

Almost every major research institute, university, and research hospital employ science PhDs as Technology Transfer Officers.

Tech transfer officers often work at universities, but the role of a TTO is not academic. In the grand scheme of the patenting process, Technology Transfer Officers are responsible for the prescreening process.

Their goal is to identify promising technologies and manage intellectual property (IP) portfolios. They search for the licensing requirements of these inventions and facilitate the foundation of start-ups based on the university’s research.

Because there is such a serious backlog of patents awaiting review, TTOs help speed up the process. It’s their job to review ideas for salability before their applications reach the patent office.

Once they’ve determined that the invention qualifies, a Technology Transfer Officer helps scientific findings and intellectual property pass from creators (such as universities and research institutions) to the public and private sectors. 

PhDs are in demand for these positions. Companies need people that know the academic system well and have the science background required to understand the technology. 

Nonprofit organizations, biopharma companies, and nearly every research university are places where you’ll find openings for TTOs.

These industry-university collaborations are beneficial to the advancement of future research. They’re also a driver for brand-new businesses and markets.

Tech transfer and TTOs are absolutely instrumental in helping advance the economy and add knowledge to many fields. They enable businesses to develop promising leads from academia and make them available to the public.

A swirl of white words is superimposed over a cropped shot of a man's pointed finger hovering just over a tablet device.

2. Patent Examiner

Patent Examiners work closely with entrepreneurs to process their patent applications. It’s their job to make a decision about whether a patent can be granted. 

Their job responsibilities facilitate the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s mission. They work to protect intellectual property and help businesses quickly move their innovations to market.

Usually they work in a government office. 

Their primary job focus is to identify areas of weakness, not unlike an editor making corrections to a manuscript. Patent Examiners determine the worth of different patent claims. Once they decide whether or not there are objections, Patent Examiners help solve those objections alongside Patent Agents.

To become a Patent Examiner, you’ll need to pass the patent bar exam (or its equivalent in the country where you want to work). 

PE’s typically work with two kinds of patents primarily: design patents and utility patents. Design patents protect something’s unique design features (such as a watch face). Utility patents protect an invention itself (the watch).

Day-to-day responsibilities for a PE include:

  • Do a thorough search of all currently available technological knowledge (“prior art”) to ensure that an invention is new and unique
  • Review patent applications to make sure they are in line with formal patenting requirements
  • Communicate their findings on patentability to inventors and patent practitioners

3. Patent Agent / Scientific Consultant

The role of a Patent Agent can be complex but rewarding.

This position acts as a bridge between the Patent Examiner, who has signed off on a product being patentable, and the Patent Attorney, whose job it is to protect stakeholders from financial loss.

They work with inventors, researchers, and attorneys. Their primary responsibilities are to:

  • evaluate invention technology
  • assess patentability, draft patent applications, and 
  • analyze and respond to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) actions 

To become a Patent Agent, you’ll need to pass the patent bar exam (or its equivalent in the country where you want to work). 

Patent Agents usually work in law offices, creating patent claims for their clients. This is a writing-intensive position that calls for superior communication skills in addition to all the qualifications of a patent examiner or TTO.

Scientific Consultant’s have a similar role to a Patent Agent, but the extent of their involvement can vary and they are much more mobile. When companies need guidance on scientific matters, they may look to a consultant rather than hiring a new employee. 

Scientific Consultants are often independent agents. They work with a variety of companies to offer advice, lead experiments, analyze data and present information to a company’s employees.

PhDs are particularly well-suited and sought out for the role of Scientific Consultant because of the high degree of accuracy and attention to detail they provide. Oftentimes SCs have a niche (usually their area of study as PhD) and are considered subject matter experts in that particular field.

Working as a Scientific Consultant can offer you a chance to travel, learn new skills and work on a range of different projects. Rather than working with just one company, this role involves staying with a company until their research is complete and then moving on to another opportunity. 

The most common path for PhDs to become IP lawyers is to gain experience as a Patent Agent and then have a company sponsor their law degree. If your goal is to become an IP lawyer, consider that career path as opposed to Scientific Consultant.

4. Intellectual Property Lawyer

It’s hard to overemphasize the reach of intellectual property law. It protects catchphrases and blueprints, prescription drugs, and even specific colors. And where there’s IP law, there are IP Lawyers. 

IP Lawyers work for companies across industries, helping them find ways to patent their assets. They protect innovation, creativity, and discovery, and they work closely with businesses and individuals to defend their rights.

While a Patent Agent obtains patents for clients, Patent Attorneys or IP Lawyers help clients assert or defend against claims of patent infringement. Some of the more common duties they perform include:

  • preparing documents needed to file patents
  • putting a stop to intellectual property infringement by sending formal letters or taking legal action 
  • keeping “IP bullies” (those who overextend the definition of their patent rights to the detriment of another asset) in check
  • interpreting laws and regulations
  • conducting research used to prepare a variety of documents

Many PhDs report that they really value the incredible variety that a role in IP law gives them. Every day there are new challenges, new triumphs, and a wide range of things to do for new clients. 

In addition to strong skills in analytical thinking, problem solving, critical reading, writing and editing, oral communication, listening, and research, IP lawyers also recommended building skills and experiences in the area of public service to give you an edge in your journey to becoming an IP Attorney.

This position requires a law degree. The most common path for PhDs to become IP Lawyers is to gain experience as Patent Agents and then have a company sponsor their law degree.

This position is in the top 10% highest-paying PhD-level positions. The median salary for IP lawyers, according to Glassdoor, was $133,955 in 2022.

A young business professional wearing glasses has his eyes bent to a desk, a pen poised in his hand.

You Already Have The Skills You Need To Excel In Intellectual Property

PhDs don’t need legal training to jump into a career in intellectual property. There are other rewarding positions you can explore that don’t require any additional education.

But if you’re interested in continuing your education (and why not? You’ve come this far), there’s room to grow in intellectual property. 

The bottom line is that, as a PhD, you are uniquely suited to any role in the realm of technology transfer.

Your background in academia means that you have an understanding of the academic partners’ perspective. You also have a solid scientific knowledge base.

Marrying these skills with an understanding of the patenting process will set you up as a prime candidate for a technology transfer position.

The global market value of the IP industry is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 12% through 2030 (Transparency Market Research), so now is the perfect time to start thinking about your options in this field. 

Concluding Remarks

American author and cartoonist Ashleigh Brilliant said, “You can’t stop progress, but you can help decide what is progress and what isn’t.”

As PhDs, your high degree of skill in research and analysis and your superior reasoning skills will be instrumental in driving progress as a tech transfer professional. 

If you want to stay connected to academic research and are passionate about seeing new technologies make it to market, a role in technology transfer could be right for you.

The industry is on a growth hot streak, too.

According to a report by the Milken Institute, more than 1,000 start-up companies were launched based on university discoveries over the course of a year.

The number of start-ups launched by universities annually has doubled over the past ten years (Milken Institute).

Which means PhDs like you will continue to be in high demand for years to come – even as the job market continues to contract.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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