Top tips for science careers from the Randall Division annual retreat

A guest post by Duvaraka Kulaveerasingam, PhD student, Randall Division of Cell and Molecular Biophysics.

For the first time, the Randall Division annual retreat at Royal Holloway featured an additional Careers Day exclusively for its postdoctorate, PhD and research staff.  It was a huge success.

Randall Division researchers at Royal Holloway

Randall Division researchers at Royal Holloway

The breadth of experience amongst our speakers was phenomenal and it was interesting to see the different paths they had taken to reach where they were today. It was encouraging to hear how they had overcome obstacles such as funding crises and relocations to achieve their goals. Here is some of the advice they gave:



  • All of our speakers stressed that you have to be able to sell yourself in any career
  • Network wherever you go – your contacts may one day find you a job as Roy Edward (Biostatus) found out when he was being made redundant
  • Make sure you are visible – whether it’s on LinkedIn or at a conference. Alison Care (Kilburn&Strode) let us know that she checks future employee’s Facebook pages too.
  • Pete Etchells (Guardian) told us to be patient with blogging; tweet, email and ask renowned bloggers to share or give feedback on your work, and practice writing all the time!
  • Never assume you aren’t right for the job – tell the employers what skills you are willing to learn. Arianne Heinrichs (Nature) described what she had to learn as a non-native english speaker during her career.
  • Turning down brilliant opportunities for personal reasons doesn’t mean the end, as Chas Bountra (SGC) and Peter O’Toole (University of York) found. They both ended up in their current positions thanks to these turning points.
  • Contact prospective employers and find out not only if you are right for the job, but if the company or the lab is right for you.
  • Keep your eyes open for internships opportunities. Aaron Goater (Westminster) stressed that some government departments have small teams with few roles so you need to check websites regularly.

If you are looking to organise a careers event don’t hesitate to contact our team to find out how we did it!

Photo courtesy Roksana Nikoopour

Career Spotlight: Patent Attorney

We’ve written up spotlights about being a Patent Attorney before – use the search function in the blog to find info from the past two years.  This year’s spotlight had four attorneys who spanned a range of experiences.  Here, briefly, are some notes of information that particularly stood out (see particularly the good and bad reasons for wanting to be an attorney, right at the end of the post!).

Nick Noble from Kilburn Strode:

KCL PhD and post-doc at Imperial, Nick took out a patent when he was doing his PhD.  He says that the kinds of people likely to be interested in being an attorney are those with

  • an interest in law
  • people who are ‘picky and pedantic’ ‘odd alls’
  • people who get a buzz out of an argument

Nick particularly talked about the different flavours to firms – some are interested in extremely high quality work; some more interested in revenue.  Some are friendly and sociable, others more interested in the money.

He revealed salary information: a trainee would start at £25-30k; after about five years, you are on £50-60K; 5 years post-qualification you would be on £85k and after about 12 years, £100k.  Those at the top of the profession might be earning £700 000.

Eleanor MacIver, Mewburn Ellis:

Eleanor is a trainee attorney, with a PhD and two post-docs in chemistry.  She moved into attorney work because she didn’t want to do benchwork any more.

She described a patent as a bargain between the inventor and the public: you get a 20 year monopoly on the enforcement and exploitation rights to your invention in return for disclosing it to help the public learn.

She expects to qualify within four years; future career moves include moving in-house to a pharma company (as well as moving up within your firm).

Eleanor gave this advice about applications:

  • You need to want to learn more about science and technology
  • Your writing needs to be clear and concise
  • You should apply everywhere!
  • You will fail your written exams – this might be the first time you’ve ever failed at anything.

Jodie Albutt, Dehns:

Jodie’s PhD came from St Thomas’s and she says that she moved into patent work because she wanted a stable job not based on short-term contracts or publication record.  She applied to 60 firms, had 6 interviews and 2 offers.  She has been at Dehns for 14 years.

Jodie’s advice included:

  • send speculative applications (ie apply to firms even if they’re not advertising for trainees)
  • you can sometimes find in-house trainee roles
  • in her experience biotech divisions need people with PhDs but a post-doc isn’t necessary
  • check out the training offered by the firms – some firms require you to take the foundation course on your own but elsewhere they sponsor you through it one day per week or for three months (the course is at QMUL).
  • check the size of the firms – numbers of staff and trainees (Dehns is one of the largest with 70 professional staff and lots of trainees)
  • EPO (European Patent Office) has a website where you can check a register of attorneys and see the clients they work for (which would be useful to know to help inform your application letter and to help you understand what kind of firm it is)
  • check the Legal 500 to see what ‘tier’ the firm is – working for a top tier firm as a trainee might look good for your future
  • check benefits – pay, benefits (inc holiday or flexible hours), bonus (based on profits or targets)

Re interviews:

You might be asked to describe a pencil or a problem, but you wouldn’t be expected to have knowledge of patent law.  You have to be able to understand what is commercially important for your client.

‘There aren’t that many unhappy patent lawyers’!!

Some of the tricky parts of the job:

  • you have to be able to accept someone destroying your work and getting you to do it again.
  • you need to be very organised: she has 250 active cases (though some she might look at only once per year)
  • there are a lot of emails – it’s a very office-based role though you may go to Munich to defend your patent at the EPO

John Fisher, Carpmaels and Ransford

‘It’s an excellent career!’

He has been a attorney since 2006 (he has an MSci from KCL and DPhil from Oxford).  There are about 50/50 PhDs/non-PhD attorneys at his firm.

He does a lot of patent defence work, where he enjoys the argument and scrapping face to face with an opposing attorney.  He says that he is acting as an advocate for his clients, always looking for angles and answers to problems.

As you develop through the career, your role moves more into business development and client management – he has had trips to see clients in the US for example.

Private practice vs in-house: private practice will be larger with more trainees, a wider breadth of experience; in-house will be very focussed, smaller and largely not in London.

Reasons he likes the role:

  • Partners can make up to £1m
  • You can work part-time
  • You can get to choose your specialism
  • You can become a freelance
  • It is pretty easy to move around once you’re in the profession

Top tips for applications:

DON’T say you want to be an attorney because

  • you’re bored of working in the lab
  • you’re interested in science
  • you want to be at the forefront of technology

DO say:

  • you want to be an advocate for a client
  • you’re interested in communications and language
  • you like solving problems and finding solutions
  • you’re interested in incremental improvements to business.


Career Inspiration: Patent Attorney

Could you describe a pencil in fewer than 100 words?

Interested in using your scientific knowledge in a very precise way?

Join us to hear from the following speakers, who can probably do both those things…..!
Eleanor MacIver – Trainee Patent Atorney at Mewburn Ellis, PhD in Organic Chemistry

John Fisher – Senior Associate at Carpmaels & Ransford LLP, PhD in Organic Chemistry

Nick Noble –  Patent Attorney at Kilburn & Strode, PhD in Medical Image Analysis

Weds 25th March 5-6pm
FWB 1.70, Waterloo

Use the Patent Attorney tag from the list on the RH side to read about previous Career Spotlights in this field.

Career Spotlight: insights about working as a patent attorney

We were joined by Dr Marianne Shepherd and Stuart Lumsden from Marks & Clerk, and Dr Robert Andrew from Mewburn Ellis.  You might like to find out about last year’s speakers here.

Both main speakers (Marianne and Robert) struck me as really interested in their science, quietly determined to make the most of their knowledge and delighted by the technical intricacies of attorney work.  Sound like you?  Read on!

Marianne has recently joined the firm, from a molecular biology PhD at Oxford, and says that she chose patent attorney work because it would be intellectually stimulating, broaden her knowledge, and enable her to use her technical knowledge.

She described the work as a way for inventors to gain protection of their work from the state, and for them to control exploitation of the work.  Patent applications work both ways: you get the patent rights, but you also have the disclose the information about the invention too.

Her day includes

  • providing information to inventors about whether or not their work is patentable
  • describing the invention to make an application – you have to widen out the description to cover future commercial applications
  • preparing the patent application for the Patent Office
  • preparing response to any Patent Office objections, which involves reading documents and understanding the invention very clearly.

The application process for her was much the same as many standard graduate schemes.  She attended Open Days at various firms’ offices, and also sent some speculative letters.  Interviews are reasonably tricky, but so long as you are well-prepared about what patent attorneys do and are clear about the technical knowledge that you bring them, they are not particularly different from other interviews.  You will, though, probably be given a drafting exercise, where you may have to describe something (eg a pair of scissors or a pencil) so that they can check your grammar, proof-reading, and the clarity of your thought processes.

Training should be very comprehensive and one of the distinguishing features between firms is how much training support they offer.  You train for four years, with a partner of the firm over seeing your work.  You qualify both as a UK and EU patent attorney (there is no language requirement) and have lots of exams.  This may well be the first time you have ever failed an exam but it is known that people will fail!!!  Once you have passed these exams, you could work as an independent patent attorney, or stay working for a firm.

She says that patent attorney work is not really a job for those that need social interaction face to face: much of the time you are working on your own or over the phone and email.

Robert is a more senior patent attorney who completed a PhD in 2006.  His areas of work now extend across industrial enzymes, stem cells and dental implants, for example.

He said that what clients are paying for is attorneys’ detailed knowledge of the complex system, and the global connections firms have.  His work, in addition to that that Marianne undertakes, includes defending patent decisions in the EU courts (eg Brussels) where you are doing oral objections, a bit like a barrister.  You are ‘thinking fast about science’!

As you become more senior, then you might take more of a business development role, such as, for example, going to work with a client company in Korea to understand their business better.

Skills required:

  • to be able to read, think and write a lot
  • good all-round technical and science awareness
  • analytical approach
  • a feeling for an grasp of words
  • communication
  • working to deadlines and under pressure

It is a relatively secure and well-paid profession, 80% of the work in the UK is in London, there are good opportunities to become partner, and it’s a very independent role.  The hours are good and you could go and work in-house just for one client company.  Languages are useful when working with clients, but not to do the job.  You bill by 6 minute slots of your time!

See CareersTagged for more information about this role.