If you enjoy being at the forefront of technology, have an eye for detail and excellent analytical skills, then consider a career as a patent examiner

As a patent examiner you'll use your technical and legal skills to assess applications for patents, which are granted to applicants to give them the right to stop other people using, selling or making their inventions.

Working for either the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) or the European Patent Office (EPO), you'll check that the invention is new, clear and inventive and not merely an adjustment to something which already exists, by carrying out searches using UK and foreign patent specifications, technical literature and databases.

Responsibilities

As a patent examiner, you'll need to:

  • investigate 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
  • examine the invention from a technical standpoint
  • search through earlier publications, technical literature and online databases of UK and foreign patent specifications to make sure that the application is new
  • consider legal matters affecting acceptability and entitlement to the monopoly claimed by the applicant
  • gather information to judge the originality of an invention
  • prepare an initial report and give the results of your search to the applicant or, more usually, a patent attorney, who then decides whether to proceed to the second stage of the application
  • make a final decision as to the novelty of an invention, which is written in a final report
  • discuss and negotiate with the applicant and patent attorney to resolve any matters raised in the final report
  • maintain up-to-date knowledge of developments through study and visits to laboratories, factories, exhibitions and seminars.

Patent examiners at the EPO may also be involved in opposition procedures, which occur when a European patent has been granted and is then opposed by a third party (usually a competitor).

Salary

  • Salaries for associate patent officers (trainees) at the IPO start at £25,150, including a £3,030 recruitment and retention allowance. Posts in some areas of patent work may attract a further allowance on top of this.
  • A newly promoted patent examiner currently earns £36,609, including a £1,515 recruitment and retention allowance.
  • A senior patent examiner will earn a salary starting at £52,731, including a £1,515 recruitment and retention allowance.
  • Salaries for patent examiners at the EPO follow a grading system and vary depending on your experience. Patent examiner basic monthly salaries (grades 7 to 10) are around €5,500 to €7,800.

EPO salaries are subject to an internal tax, rather than national income tax. EPO staff may be entitled to relocation and other benefits. Salaries vary slightly depending on which country you work in.

Income data from IPO and EPO. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

A standard working week at the IPO is 37 hours. The IPO operates a flexible working system with no core hours, where you can work any time between 5am to 10pm. There are also opportunities to work part or term time.

The EPO working week is 40 hours, operating on a flexitime system.

What to expect

  • The work is mainly office based, with an evenly paced workload.
  • The main IPO office is based in Newport, south Wales, although there is also a small office in London. The EPO has its headquarters in Munich, but also has offices in The Hague, Berlin and Vienna.
  • Self-employment and freelance work is not possible as a patent examiner.
  • You may need to travel to exhibitions, industrial sites and laboratories to update your knowledge.
  • The EPO provides a range of social events, clubs and communities to help relocated staff to feel at home.

Qualifications

To work as a patent examiner for the IPO, you'll need a 2:2 degree or above in a relevant science, engineering, mathematics or computer science subject. Job adverts will state the disciplines that are being recruited for, so you'll need to look out for jobs that relate to your area of expertise.

You don't need legal experience before joining the IPO as you'll be trained in the relevant legal and practical skills once you're in post.

Entry without a degree may be possible for those with substantial industrial experience.

To work for the EPO, you'll need to be a citizen of one of the member states of the European Patent Organisation and have a Masters degree (or equivalent) in physics, chemistry, engineering or natural sciences. You’ll also need thorough knowledge of one of the three official languages (English, French and German) and a working knowledge of the other two.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • 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 complex technical and legal arguments, justifying the granting or otherwise of a patent, both orally and in writing
  • research skills
  • negotiation skills
  • the communication skills to interact with colleagues and applicants to process patent applications efficiently
  • flexibility of thought and the ability to grasp unfamiliar concepts
  • self-motivation and a willingness to take responsibility for your own actions
  • competence in IT, in order to search databases and check the originality of inventions.

Work experience

It's helpful to have relevant industrial experience, but this doesn't need to be related to patents and documentation.

The EPO offers a limited number of internships. See Internships at the European Patent Office for details.

Employers

You'll usually work for either the IPO or the EPO.

The IPO is the UK government body responsible for intellectual property rights, which includes patents, trademarks, registered designs and copyright. It employs around 1,000 staff in Newport and London. There are around 400 patent examiners.

The EPO is the executive arm of the European Patent Organisation and provides a uniform application procedure for individual inventors and companies seeking patent protection in up to 40 European countries. It employs almost 7,000 staff from over 30 countries. The EPO headquarters are in Munich but it also has a branch in The Hague, as well as offices in Berlin and Vienna, and a liaison office in Brussels.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

The IPO provides an extensive training programme covering relevant legal and practical skills. You'll start with an eight-week training course designed to teach you the basics of how to examine patent applications. Training will include lectures on patent law, seminars, workshops and course work.

Once you've completed this initial training, you'll join an examination group and start to work on live cases under the supervision of a senior patent examiner. They'll provide tuition on a one-to-one basis over two years, and you'll change supervisor every six months.

The EPO provides a two-year training programme, which combines classroom learning with tutoring from senior patent examiners, acting as coaches. You'll be working on real patent applications from day one.

Training covers all aspects of patent examination, including the use of computer tools, databases, search methods and procedures used in everyday examining work, as well as providing the opportunity to gain legal and practical expertise. If you're not already proficient in all of the three official languages (English, French and German), training is provided.

Wherever you work, you'll need to keep up to date with the latest research and technical and legal developments throughout your career. This can be done by taking further specialist qualifications in areas such as IP law, or through learning new languages or undertaking technical training to develop skills in new technology. Training can include seminars, courses and visits to companies and trade fairs.

Career prospects

There is a structured career path within the IPO. After two to four years as an associate patent examiner, you can progress to patent examiner. With about five to nine years' experience you can be promoted to senior patent examiner. Promotions at this level are non-competitive, so you don't need to wait until there's a vacancy. Promotion occurs when you reach the required level of performance. However, more senior positions, such as deputy director and above, are competitive.

As your career progresses, you will usually develop specialist expertise within a particular area such as biotechnology or electrical engineering, although opportunities may arise to change specialist subject areas. There may also be opportunities to train as a general manager and move to other government offices.

Career progression is determined by merit and seniority at the EPO. Initial appointments are subject to 12 months' probation. Following training, you will have full responsibility for your own work, taking part in opposition work (similar to a tribunal hearing) and eventually being expected to chair such proceedings.

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.