Patent examiners assess applications for patents, which are granted to applicants to give them the right to stop other people using, selling or making their inventions, creations, trade marks, designs or copyrights.
The role also includes checking that the invention is new, not merely an adjustment to something which already exists, by carrying out searches using UK and foreign patent specifications, technical literature and databases.
Patent examiners also make sure the application is technically sound and meets the formal legal requirements of the:
Patent examiners develop specialist expertise within a particular area such as biotechnology or electrical engineering, but opportunities may arise to change specialist subject areas.
Usual work activities include:
- investigating each application to ascertain that the invention is described clearly and in such a way that a skilled person would be able to use it;
- examining the invention from a technical standpoint;
- searching through earlier publications, technical literature and online databases of UK and foreign patent specifications to make sure that the application is new;
- considering legal matters affecting acceptability and entitlement to the monopoly claimed by the applicant;
- gathering information on which to base a judgement as to the originality of the invention;
- preparing an initial report and giving the results of the search to the applicant or, more usually, a patent attorney, who then decides whether to proceed to the second stage of the application;
- making a final decision as to the novelty of the invention, which is written in a final report;
- discussing and negotiating with the applicant and patent attorney to resolve any matters raised in the final report;
- presenting cases at hearings before a principal examiner;
- maintaining up-to-date knowledge of developments through study and visits to laboratories, factories, exhibitions and seminars;
- occasional specialised work, such as intellectual property policy, information retrieval and publicity.
Intellectual Property Office (IPO) salaries:
- Associate patent examiners (new starters) earn £26,779 a year. Additionally a further £4,000 allowance is available for those with relevant experience in telecommunications.
- A newly promoted patent examiner currently earns £34,400. Additionally a further £2,000 allowance is available for those with relevant experience in telecommunications.
- A senior patent examiner, usually after 5 to 9 years worth of experience, will earn a salary starting at £52,933 per annum. More senior posts are paid at Senior Civil Servant rates.
European Patent Office (EPO) salaries are very competitive, of between 4,200 and 8,000 Euros a month, and depend on the level of relevant work experience. EPO salaries are subject to an internal tax, rather than national income tax, but benefit from a wide range of allowances. These include an allowance for expatriates and a household/child allowance for those who are married and/or have children.
Income data from IPO and EPO. Figures are intended as a guide only.
The working week at the IPO is 37 hours excluding lunch breaks. Working hours are between 7am and 7pm and there's a flexible working system. Holiday entitlement is now 25 days, rising to 30 days after 5 years' service plus 9 public and privilege days.
Part-time work and job-sharing is supported, although not recommended during training. Staff can apply for unpaid career breaks.
The working week is 40 hours at the EPO, and flexi-time is on offer. It is possible to work part time or to take a career break. Staff at the EPO are entitled to 30 days' annual leave. Expatriate staff are also entitled to 8 additional days every 2 years.
What to expect
Working for the Intellectual Property Office (IPO):
- The work is mainly office-based, with an evenly paced workload.
- The IPO is based in Newport, South Wales, where there's a shop, gym, hairdresser, childcare facilities, a range of clubs and societies, and more on site.
- Self-employment/freelance work is not currently possible. Self-employment would require retraining as a patent attorney. See Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA).
- Travel within a working day, overnight absence from home and overseas work or travel may sometimes be required, with opportunities for travel to exhibitions, industrial sites and laboratories to update current knowledge.
Working for the European Patent Office (EPO):
- EPO work is available in Munich, Berlin, Vienna and The Hague.
- There is a two-year training programme for new recruits.
- All work is conducted in the three official languages, English, French and German; you need to have excellent knowledge of one, and the ability to understand the other two.The EPO offers the necessary language training.
- EPO examiners work within specific technical fields according to the international patent classification. Travel is occasionally required.
Relevant degree areas if you're applying to the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) include:
- mathematical and applied sciences;
- computer science;
- televisual or image processing;
- engineering, including civil, chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering, electronics and telecommunications.
Entry is not possible with a HND only; a good honours degree in science or engineering is essential, although a pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not needed.
The IPO usually hosts an annual graduate recruitment programme, but check with them for details.
The recruitment pattern is less predictable at the European Patent Office (EPO). The EPO website lists areas of interest at the various offices as well as specific vacancies. Application is online only, and you must be a citizen of one of the EU member states. You also need to have a degree in one of the following subjects:
- natural sciences.
Opportunities exist in Munich, Berlin, Vienna and The Hague, in a variety of engineering and science-based fields.
You will need to show evidence of the following:
- the ability to apply scientific and technical knowledge to the concepts of patent law;
- excellent analytical and critical skills and an eye for detail;
- the ability to communicate convincing arguments, justifying the granting or otherwise of a patent, both orally and in writing;
- negotiation skills;
- flexibility of thought and the ability to grasp unfamiliar concepts;
- competence in IT, in order to search databases and check the originality of inventions.
When making a job application, you should give evidence of your skills in these areas and of relevant knowledge you may have. Describe projects undertaken during your course and the subjects of your dissertations and any postgraduate study.
Relevant industrial experience is advantageous, but need not necessarily be related to patents and documentation.
The EPO offers a limited number of internships in patent examining to science and engineering graduates.
An internship programme for senior students and young professionals in Geneva is run by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). This will help you acquire a working knowledge of intellectual property and learn about the work of the organisation in treaty making, international registration, research and publication.
Intellectual property comprises patents, trademarks, registered designs and copyright. The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is responsible for carrying out the provisions of relevant acts of parliament and for advising government on policy in these areas.
A uniform application procedure for individual inventors and companies seeking patent protection in up to 40 European countries is provided by the European Patent Office (EPO).
The EPO's mission is to support innovation, competitiveness and economic growth for the benefit of the citizens of Europe. With 7,000 staff from over 30 nations at its headquarters in Munich and branches in The Hague, Berlin and Vienna, plus a liaison office in Brussels, the office is one of the largest international institutions in Europe.
Based in Geneva, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) administers international treaties, assists governments, organisations and the private sector, monitoring developments and harmonising and simplifying rules and practices.
With staff from 100+ countries, it also acts as a clearing house in distributing patent applications to national patent offices, so the work there is administrative rather than involving the assessment of applications. Most posts require considerable experience in the intellectual property field and a legal background.
Scientific and technical journals, e.g. New Scientist, may occasionally feature patent vacancies.
Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.
Extensive training is offered by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) following an induction programme during which you are assigned to an experienced examiner for a period normally lasting 12 months. During this time, you receive instruction and gain experience in all aspects of law and office practise via seminars to develop the skills an examiner needs.
Staff are also encouraged to undertake personal development through specific programmes or further education. In-service training is provided in patent law, computer systems and databases, plus other professional skills. Visits and lectures assist in keeping you up to date with technical developments.
The initial training lasts two years at the European Patent Office (EPO). It combines classroom learning with tutoring from personal coaches and covers all aspects of patent examination, with the assignment of a personal coach in the first year.
Language training is provided - experienced patent examiners will be expected to have an effective command of all three official languages. Further training includes seminars, courses and visits to companies and trade fairs to keep patent examiners informed about the latest technological developments.
There is considerable scope to develop a career with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) by moving either upwards to gain seniority, or laterally to broaden experience in one of the following six directorates:
- trademarks and designs;
- copyright and intellectual property enforcement;
- international policy;
- business support.
More than 240 patent examiners work at the IPO, amongst a total of around 900 staff. All promotions depend on the individual's rate of progress up to a certain level of seniority.
After about two to four years as an associate patent examiner, the next step is to patent examiner. Five to nine years after joining, promotion may be to senior patent examiner. Promotion to this level is not dependent on there being a vacancy; it is non-competitive, giving a clear career structure.
Beyond this level, vacancies are advertised and applications are competitive. You may be able to train as a general manager and move to other government offices.
Career progression is determined by merit and seniority at the European Patent Office (EPO). Initial appointments are subject to 12 months' probation. Following training, the patent examiner has full responsibility for his or her own work, taking part in opposition work (similar to a tribunal hearing) and eventually being expected to chair such proceedings. Some patent examiners take the examinations to qualify as European patent attorneys.
Other possibilities for development include tutoring, training or short-term missions to other countries. Experienced examiners may become managers or members of boards of appeal.
The main career move for patent examiners is to become a patent attorney.