West Virginia Wesleyan College

Department of Physics and Engineering

Careers in Patent Law for Physics Majors


Excerpts from The Physics Teacher, November, 2010 __________________________________________________

Introduction to patent law

In the U.S., patent law is based on the Constitution, which gives Congress the power "to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to ... inventors the exclusive right to their ... discoveries."

A patent gives the inventor an "exclusive right" to the invention. Stated differently, a patent is a government-granted limited monopoly on an invention.

Under today's patent statutes, anyone who 'invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent."

To be patentable, an invention must be new and unobvious to practioners in that field.

Usually an inventor hires a patent attorney or a patent agent to submit a patent application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Patent applications are examined by a patent examiner, who insures that the claimed invention is patentable.

Usually there is at least one problem. In this case, a negotiation process ensues.



Patent examiners are always employed by the USPTO, located in Alexandria, Va. A patent examiner generally must have a 4-year degree in science or engineering.

According to the USPTO, the following attributes are valuable for patent examiners:

  • have engineering "common sense,"
  • enjoy expressing and articulating decisions,
  • be more parctical than theoretical,
  • have a good memory for details,
  • be able to make independent decisions, and
  • work well with structured productivity goals.

Many patent examiners go on to get their law degree with financial support from the USPTO. Salaries range from $41,350 to $152,300. More information is available at the USPTO website.

Patent agents are people registered to submit patents to the USPTO. Patent agents are not lawyers. To become registered, a candidate must take an intensive examination called the "patent bar."



To be eligible to take the examination, a candidate must generally have a BS in science or engineering. The exam is based on the Manual of Patent Examining, which is available online.

Starting salaries for patent agents range from $40,000 to the low six figures.

Patent attorneys are patent agents who also is a lawyer. Most lawyers are not eligible because they do not have a BS in science or engineering. A BS in physics is an excellent pre-law degree for patent attorneys.

Salaries range from $80,000 to the seven-figures.

A personal snapshot--

Michael Mann, a physicist turned patent attorney

Michael Mann graduated from Penn State in 1969 with a BS in Physics, an MS in Nuclear Engineering, and a degree in law. He worked as a lawyer for a nuclear waste service company.

After the Three-Mile Island accident in 1979, the nuclear industry contracted rapidly. Mann passed the patent bar and works for the patent law firm Nexsen Pruet.

Mann states, "Practicing patent law requires uncommon verbal skills. Preciseness of language is important, but not necessarily great oration skills."