Graduate school is quite challenging already. As an international student, you might be faced with additional challenges in locating a job after graduation. To help navigate you through this process, the Huck Graduate Student Advisory Committee (HGSAC) invited Dr. Wenhua Yu, who graduated in 2010 with a Ph.D in Genetics, for a seminar on Jan.29, 2016. Dr.Wenhua Yu has been working as a patent agent for three years.
Patenting is one of the hot fields STEM graduates could consider as a lifetime career. After working as a patent agent for more than 3 years, Dr. Wenhua Yu decided to take it one step further. Now she is a Juris Doctor candidate at Northwestern University. Northwestern University law school is one of the top 14 law schools (tier 1) in the United States. Last summer, Wenhua worked as a summer associate in an international law firm (Foley & Lardner LLP) and will work for the firm after graduation.
Dr. Wenhua Yu sets a good example for those who would like to pursue a career outside of academia, especially for international students. In the Q&A below, she has provided practical suggestions, such as how to make the transition into patenting and how to be successful in this field. However, if you have other questions regarding the career in patenting, please find her on LinkedIn. She is more than happy to answer questions from Penn State alumni!
Title of seminar: Career Path in Intellectual Property Law for STEM
1. What’s your educational background? Is there anything specific that prepared you for your current career?
I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in Pharmacology from Wuhan University in 2004. Then I graduated with my Ph.D. degree in Genetics from Penn State.
What I got from my prior education and school training that is most helpful for my current career is independent thinking, research and self-learning. Working in the patent field, I am dealing with frontier developments, new concepts and innovations in science and technology on a daily basis. The ability to self-learn is critical for me to get up to speed and work with the materials.
2. What are your current roles/responsibilities? How have these changed over time?
Currently I am in law school. But if I had stayed in the work force for the past two years, I can imagine for myself a role of preparing and prosecuting patent applications and counseling clients on their options for protecting innovation and other forms of IP. In terms of teamwork, I would presumably have a role that involves supervising paralegals, IP secretaries and younger patent agents on various prosecution matters. I would also support senior associates or partners on projects other than patent prosecution, such as litigation support, and opinion work.
Naturally, as I grow more senior, the role becomes more complicated and requires more experience. Looking forward, in my opinion, a senior lawyer’s role would likely involve some level of business development and client management. Thus, entrepreneurial skills may become important at some point.
3. Was this career path something you had always considered?
Yes. I realized that pure scientific research was probably not for me pretty soon after I enrolled in the Penn State graduate program. But at the same time, I was still interested in pharmacology and life science. Thus, the idea of switching to a totally unrelated field was not appealing at the time.
I came to know about the career path in IP law close to the end of my graduate program, and I liked it right away. To me, it seemed to be a unique combination of what I wanted to do and what I was trained for many years before. That was the key decision point, and it remains the same since then.
4. What skills have made you and others in your field successful? Were there any unexpected skills that you needed to learn?
Conducting research in a particular field by finding and studying scientific papers, technical reports and other related references as well as analytical skills and oral/writing communication skills are all important. As a person with a foreign background, one “skill” that I find myself constantly trying to improve is that of engaging in interesting casual conversations with colleagues and clients about things not related to the job, such as football.
5. What can a young scientist do to position himself or herself for a career as a patent agent or lawyer? Any tips on specific ways to network in the field?
I think the best way to network would be to reach out to people who are already in the IP field and let them know your interest about this career. These people could be those who work at the university technology transfer office, alumni who have taken this path, and those one might meet at professional conferences. For example, American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) national center and regional branches hold several conferences each year.
6. After law school, where would you like to work?
I will join the San Diego office of a general practice law firm. I picked the San Diego market because of its concentration on intellectual property law, especially biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
7. How easy/difficult is it to balance work and personal/family life in your career?
I chose to become an attorney and work in big law. Life-work balance may be hard to maintain with this particular combination. However, I don’t think there is a universal answer to this question. I know many successful attorneys who enjoy both their life and career, raise multiple children, and/or have serious hobbies. I think this question also depends on at what stage you are at in your career. For example, patent agents have significantly less billable requirement than patent attorneys.
8. What advice do you have, about anything, for current graduate students?
For young scientists who want to go down this career path, I think the most difficult phase is when he/she is making the transition from a pure scientific field into the patent field that is at the juncture of science and law. But I think the opportunity is out there.
In my opinion, taking and passing the patent bar would be a big plus for people at this stage. Not only would it show the person’s determination about this career choice but it also indicates that the person has mastered basic concepts about the law. Also, I would encourage STEM students to spend time polishing their writing skills and public speaking skills (e.g., via TA-ing or activity organizing) while in graduate school.