How hard is it to become a patent examiner?
October 12, 2008 10:46 PM   Subscribe

Is it difficult to get hired by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a patent examiner?

I talked to a person from the USPTO at a recent university career fair. I'm wondering if anybody knows how their interview process works, how long their hiring process takes, and how competitive it is to get a job there. I've learned (both through researching online and from the person at the career fair) that they're aiming to hire 1,200 patent examiners this year. Keep in mind, I've looked at their job requirements, and meet them (engineering degree, good GPA, etc.).

Also, I've heard that the job is extraordinarily boring. Is this true? I know, I know--different strokes for different folks, boredom is subjective, yada yada. So, is it boring?

The benefits and pay seemed absolutely amazing, too. I worked at the IRS before going back to school for engineering, and the benefits and pay were terrible. But at the USPTO, that doesn't seem to be the case. I'm interested in all the long-term opportunities and pay--as well as the government paying for law school after two years. Does all this really exist, or was the recruiter blowing smoke up my buttocks? Are there certain conditions that only .01% of the employees can even meet to take advantage of these opportunities?

Does anybody have any insight on working at the USPTO? Insight on anything that could help me or enlighten me? How's the 'organizational culture' there?
posted by rybreadmed to Work & Money (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I worked with a software engineer for a brief time that formerly worked for the USPTO for a year or so. He said it was numbingly boring. And I get the impression he didn't think his job at the time I talked to him was all that exciting, but I could be wrong.

However, he took the job in order to fight software patents (he didn't like the idea in general), and he only had one chance to do so, so someone that genuinely likes patents might not find it boring.
posted by ignignokt at 10:54 PM on October 12, 2008

And he was working as a patent examiner, to be clear.
posted by ignignokt at 10:54 PM on October 12, 2008

Don't know specifically about the USPTO, and I can't speak first-hand experience, my brain threatens to crawl out my ear and strangle me anytime I have to read a patent, but at the company I work for we have an intellectual property group whose job is to essentially read patents all day. Whether it's to determine the worth of a patent portfolio, look for patent infringement, or whatever. A patents job is to cover as many bases as possible without treading over any existing prior art. Examining patents generally means looking for this overlap, and/or holes.

Knowing these people, and others who have come and gone from that dept, I think I can safely vouch that not only is it boring, it's also tedious, and they would rather be doing other things. One friend who does this, hates it and wants out, but with a wife and young kids he can't take the risk right now.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 11:35 PM on October 12, 2008

A buddy of mine got a job there about a year ago. He loves the money and says the job is the single most boring thing he's ever done. Then again he does brag that though boring, he ends up sending a lot of time day dreaming because the expectations are really low for how much work you'll actually get done in a day.

It should also be noted that this guy is pretty odd.
posted by magikker at 11:50 PM on October 12, 2008

I was also curious and looked this up.

Here's the USPTO website with all the numbers:

It looks like the recruiter was pretty accurate. I wonder how they determine which of the grades you start at... BS/MS/PhD?
posted by tasty at 12:14 AM on October 13, 2008

Google up a few patents in a field in which you have some expertise. Read them from beginning to end. Then imagine doing that for the next 10 years. You have to be a detail oriented person who discerns the nuances of every word and comma in a legal context, which is very different from common English. Some people like that sort of thing and some don't.
posted by JackFlash at 12:15 AM on October 13, 2008

I think something that you have to consider is that, even if you're excited about the field and excited about the abstract concept that the patents revolve around, you're sifting through literally THOUSANDS of pages beginning with WHEREAS and you can't SKIM.

So while on the surface, it might be "cool" to plow through a few patents (and I've looked at several, for the hell of it), I think you have to consider that the potential that you'll glaze over is high. Do exactly what JackFlash suggested and use Google's Patent Search to read through the ENTIRETY of at least 10 patents.

Some are shorter than others, but the complexity comes to having to parse exact verbiage and really comprehend what some of these things are saying. That might be a fun problem solving thing for you, or you might find yourself trapped under a sea of words.

Bonus: Imagine Sarah Palin reading the patents aloud to you. You're welcome.
posted by disillusioned at 12:49 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a patent attorney I've worked with thousands of patents (reading them cover-to-cover when necessary, but not usually) and I interact with patent examiners almost daily. I find my work interesting and challenging. Quoth JackFlash: some people like that sort of thing and some don't.

My suggestion to you is that when people tell you something is boring, if you really want to rely on the opinions of random internet strangers, probe beneath the surface and see what kinds of things they really do love to do, in real life, based on their real experience. You and they may or may not be on the same wavelength at all.

For example, a M. Eng. ski instructor may well dislike patents and everything else about engineering and reading lots of hard stuff; but his example may not be of much help in making your own decisions.
posted by JimN2TAW at 6:22 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

My impression is that patent examiners do not read the entire patent application, but rather merely read enough to understand the invention and to ensure that it is adequately disclosed. They do read the claims closely though, but that is usually just a few pages. Working with patents is not boring per se. Many people find it intellectually rewarding. One survey of various attorney specializations found the highest job satisfaction among patent attorneys. Is the day to day life of a patent examiner rewarding or boring? I don't know. I know that many of them feel overworked and that the turnover rate is rather high. Probably your best bet is to contact some actual patent examiners and ask them about the career. Here is one examiner who keeps a blog. You might find additional contacts through their union.
posted by caddis at 8:16 AM on October 13, 2008

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