Inventions from pills to iPods need patents. Here's how engineering graduates can make their trade mark. By Suzanne Lynch

Like many science graduates, Eddie Walker felt he was at a crossroads when he finished university. "I'd finished a physics degree at Durham University and didn't know what I wanted to do next," he explains. "I worked for a year for a large telecommunications company, but knew it wasn't for me." Then he heard about patent agency through a friend and thought it sounded really interesting. After applying to a few firms and having some interviews, he was offered a job by Mewburn Ellis LLP, a large patent attorney firm in London. "I've been here over three years and am really enjoying it," he says.

Walker is just one of a growing number of science and engineering graduates who are choosing a career as patent attorneys in the UK. Although patent agency is one of the smallest professions - with only 1,500 entered on the official Register of Patent Agents - it is a growing industry, and increasingly an option for engineers who want to try something different.

Nonetheless, most people have little knowledge about it. So, what does the job entail? "Essentially, patent agency is a career that lies somewhere between science and law," says Michael Harrison, former president of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys. "There are over 30,000 applications for patents every year in the UK. The job of the patent agent (or patent attorney as they are otherwise known) is to assist his or her clients to secure intellectual property rights for an invention."

In other words, if an individual or company comes up with a new invention, they hire a patent agent to help them secure a patent for that invention.

For interested graduates, the basic requirement is a solid academic background in science or engineering; you'll find that almost all entrants have a hard science or engineering degree. In 2005, close to 50 per cent of trainees had first degrees in chemistry or biochemistry, while the remainder had backgrounds in engineering, physics and electronic engineering.

What are the essential skills and qualities? First, a strong academic background in science and engineering, according to Simon Kiddle, recruitment partner for Mewburn Ellis LLP. Second, excellent communication skills." We look for someone who can express complex ideas in a clear and coherent way," he says.

To become a fully qualified patent attorney, trainees have to undergo rigorous training. They need to pass two sets of exams, those set by the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents in the UK, and those set by the European Patent Office.

Training usually includes on-the-job training, where trainees work closely with senior partners in their firm. Many companies also send their trainees on tailor-made courses to help them prepare for exams, such as the three-month intellectual property law course run by Queen Mary, University of London.

Although most firms offer graduates a comprehensive training programme, the qualification process should not be underestimated. It is not uncommon for candidates to fail one or more of the exams on first sitting, and typically it takes anything from four to six years to qualify fully as a patent attorney.

But if the prospect of an endless stream of exams is daunting, there are many advantages to entering the profession. Chief among them is the salary. Although the starting salary for a trainee is quite low, once qualified, patent agents' salaries compare extremely well with those of other professions such as accountancy and law.

Partners can earn six-figure packages. That means that more and more highly qualified applicants are entering the profession. Although officially the basic requirement for a patent attorney trainee scheme is an undergraduate degree, in reality more and more people with postgraduate qualifications are entering: in recent years, close to 50 per cent of new recruits have had PhDs.


Eddie walker, 28, is a patent attorney who studied physics at durham university

After university Eddie worked for a large telecommunications company. A year later he moved into patent agency. He has been working for Mewburn Ellis LLP since December 2002, and qualified this year as a UK patent attorney. He is awaiting results of exams to qualify as a European patent agent.

What's his favourite thing about the job? "The variety. As a physics graduate, I have dealt with a range of inventions. You need to get to grips with new concepts quickly."