19 September 2013

Career Profile: Astronomer to Patent Examiner

Laura Trouille Northwestern University & The Adler Planetarium

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Cara Rakowski, an astronomer turned patent examiner for the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

What field do you currently work in?

What is the job title for your current position?
Patent Examiner

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
US Patent and Trademark Office

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Springfield, VA, and Alexandria, VA

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Research Scientist

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
Two postdocs, then a federal position as an astronomer that was effectively soft money, then my position in the patent office.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
Dwindling availability of funding, such that I could not foresee surviving a complete career as an astronomer either as a Fed or in an academic position, so it was time to take the leap to a new path, while the opportunity was there, and when my current pay was still low enough that it wasn't too much of a pay cut to "start over."

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
Moved to the patent office at age 38.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
The ability to learn cutting-edge technology, write clearly and quickly, and research what is known in a field (now called "prior art"). However, I've been honing those skills all through my school years, not just my Ph.D.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
The patent office provides a four month training academy to its new hires once they're onboard.

Describe a typical day at work.
Read and evaluate the claims of a new application in potentially a new subject matter for me, understand the inventive concept from the specifications, peruse any search reports or prior art submitted by the applicant, conduct a search for the claimed invention, decide whether and how to reject the current submission, write it all up, do corrections, field responses from attorneys, and make "final" decisions on patentability or rejection in consultation with my superiors. (This is currently spread out over two days.)

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
To be totally honest, my husband got a job at the patent office when I took my second postdoc here in D.C. Since then, every time I complained about funding or any other aspect of my job or work, he's said, "Come work at the patent office." After five years, they finally had a listing for physicists — I applied through USAJOBS — and now I'm here.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
1) If you actually want a research-related academic job, only Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Princeton, and the like will stand a chance of getting you there. 2) The Federal Government is actually a really good employer for physicists.

How many hours do you work in a week?
35-40 hours. Working overtime is not even legal at my paygrade. It's great. Tons of responsibility, but you leave your work at the door to the office.

What is your salary?
Starting salaries at the USPTO are $58-$75K, but within five years you can be up to over $110K, plus $10-$20K available in production-related bonuses, with only non-competitive promotions (i.e., ones you have total control over, you do the work, they promote you).

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied. This job has a great mix of stimulating new technologies and legal matters to learn, responsibility that makes the job feel worthwhile, and a constant stream of accomplishments to keep you feeling productive. It's basically perfect for someone who was really good at school, but not all that creative as a scientist themselves.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
The constant learning, being the "adjudicator," interacting with my fellow examiners, and the variety of subject matter and legal situations.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
The people at the patent office love their work and come from an extremely varied range of previous employers and jobs, but have all come to love it here.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
This job is not "creative" in the traditional sense, but it does require you to constantly learn and apply new knowledge.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Very satisfied. The USPTO works very hard at having a good work-life balance. It would be difficult to come up with any place that does a better job of accommodating balancing work and non-work life.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very family friendly.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Do what you want to do for yourself and let the chips fall where they may.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes, I keep in touch with my colleagues.

There is a worry among those considering careers outside of astronomy or academia that you can't "go back" and/or that you feel that you betrayed advisors, friends, colleagues. Have you felt this way?
Yes. You truly probably can't "go back" from the patent office to an academic position. But you can move forward, go to law school, become a supervisor, legal counsel to the office, patent board member, or any other number of positions that are difficult to explain to outsiders.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Cooking, singing, hiking, fishing, reading.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Yes, cara.rakowski [at] gmail.com.