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Recently I ran across a number of patent agent positions, which seem to require significant scientific research or academic skills and experience, up to a Ph.D. level. After reading some patents, it is pretty clear to me that such role is anything but an easy job. Nevertheless, I am somewhat attracted to it due to the fact that it combines scientific research and innovation with intellectual property and entrepreneurship areas. I am curious about the following two aspects:

  • How the time, spent in a role of patent agent, is considered by the academic community from the overall academic/research career perspective? While we cannot talk about pure research productivity in that case, since inventions are made by other people, I am wondering about whether helping those people to formulate their ideas in a clear and defensible manner can be counted as an informal co-authorship of some kind. In other words, is there some ethical authorship credit that would be attached — again, informally — to patent agents' research portfolio and enable them to further return back to mainstream academia at some point?

  • Considering the above-mentioned point and, perhaps, other aspects, how difficult would be for a Ph.D. graduate without significant research portfolio (at the moment) to return to academia (as postdoc, then faculty) after having worked as a patent agent for some time?

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I am wondering about whether helping those people to formulate their ideas in a clear and defensible manner can be counted as an informal co-authorship of some kind.

My impression (based on my own experience as well as what I've heard from others) is that patent attorneys or agents typically make no contribution at all to helping their clients formulate ideas in a clear and intellectually defensible manner. Instead, the contribution is entirely on the legal side: formulating things in a way that is likely to pass the review by the patent examiner and any subsequent legal challenges, while at the same time claiming as much intellectual property as possible. This is a very valuable contribution, but not the sort of value that most of academia rewards (it's simply orthogonal to the intellectual contributions). It's possible that a law school or business school might specifically hire someone because of this experience, but for most departments experience as a patent agent would not count as anything remotely like research.

You could try to make a special argument for your case (maybe your activities would differ from those of the average patent agent), but you would face a lot of skepticism.

In other words, is there some ethical authorship credit that would be attached — again, informally — to patent agents' research portfolio and enable them to further return back to mainstream academia at some point?

This is no such convention, and you would have to be very careful if you made any suggestions in this direction (since it could easily come across as trying to take unfair credit for other people's work).

I don't have any statistics, but I believe returning to academia after spending time as a patent agent is rare. I've known several people with Ph.D.s who became patent agents, and I've known of others, but I've never heard of anyone returning to academia afterwards. (I wouldn't be surprised if it has happened, though.)

Considering the above-mentioned point and, perhaps, other aspects, how difficult would be for a Ph.D. graduate without significant research portfolio (at the moment) to return to academia (as postdoc, then faculty) after having worked as a patent agent for some time?

It depends on what sort of academia. Let's assume you wouldn't be teaching law or business, so those aspects of your experience would not be relevant. You could still make a case that your time as a patent agent gave you an unusually broad perspective on how your field is applied, and this could be attractive to departments. However, under ordinary circumstances it could not make up for a lack of recent research publications. If you keep publishing or apply to jobs without a strong research component, then you may be OK, but if you stop publishing, then it will be difficult to return to a research university, even as a postdoc.

  • Excellent answer (+1) - your insights are much appreciated and mostly aligned with my underlying assumptions (in regard to potential risks of that deviation from a mainstream academic career path). Having said that, I disagree with your point that patent agents' "contribution is entirely on the legal side" (note that patent attorneys are intentionally outside of the scope of my question). If that would be the case, typical requirements for patent agents of having a scientific degree and/or relevant knowledge and experience would IMHO make no sense and would not be established. – Aleksandr Blekh Sep 26 '15 at 21:12
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    I think that requirement is because it's very hard to offer useful assistance if you don't have any idea what the words even mean. (I've heard some depressingly hilarious stories from colleagues about gibberish that patent attorneys have said to them.) My impression is that the bar for patent agents is typically set at "know enough that you don't screw things up by introducing mistakes or drive the inventors crazy", rather than "know enough that you can offer serious intellectual assistance". However, I can't rule out the possibility that there are some specialists with greater knowledge. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 26 '15 at 21:25
  • Fair enough. Thank you for clarifying your thoughts. I guess, this aspect varies not only from person to person, but also from firm to firm. – Aleksandr Blekh Sep 26 '15 at 23:17
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From the perspective of our department: it makes no difference. It's just the same as any other job, inside or outside academia. That is to say, applicants are judged by the evidence they provide of being able to do world-class research.

That evidence can come from time spent in academia, public sector or private sector.

So it's up to you to build and provide that evidence. If time spent as a patent agent, estate agent, secret agent, travel agent or whatever helps you build evidence that you can do research, then that's helpful. If it doesn't, then it's not.

Similarly, if your role would be primarily about facilitating other people to do productive research, and you could provide evidence of that, then that would be helpful if you later applied for a post with the responsibility of facilitating other people to do productive research, for example a post such as departmental administrator.

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