Recent Changes in Patent Law

November 28, 2011

The recent enactment of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (signed into law on 2011 Sept 16) makes this a good time to review patents, and why they are important to chemists. While the vast majority of chemists in industry are quite familiar with the various types of intellectual property (patents, trademarks and copyrights), others are not always so well-versed. 

Basically, when you invent a new widget (drug, product, etc.), you can apply to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for a patent.  If granted, this gives you the right to “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted.”  The USPTO patent examiner reviews your application to ensure that the invention is novel, useful, and non-obvious to one skilled in the art.  They also check to make sure that the idea has not been previously disclosed publically.  Because of the large backlog, it currently takes about 3 years to get a ruling. 

One of the consequences of this system is that companies become very concerned about information security.  If anyone at the company discloses information about the invention before the patent is filed, this can result in the application being denied.  In addition, it requires industrial chemists to maintain meticulous laboratory notebooks, regularly witnessed by others who understand, but are not part of, the work being patented.

One of the most significant changes in this Act was to change the United States from a “First to Invent” system to a “First Inventor to File” system.  This means that instead of proving when you came up with the idea, you only have to prove that you came up with it (that you are an inventor) and then be the first to file an application with the USPTO.  This is much easier to prove, and hopefully will reduce litigation over inventorship priority.  It also puts the United States in line with the rest of the world, most of which already use First to File systems. 

Another issue being addressed is that of fees.  Currently fees collected by the USPTO are redirected into the Treasury department’s general fund, from which Congress appropriates money to the USPTO. The fees collected by the USPTO were meant to cover the operating expenses of the agency.  However, with Uncle Sam taking a cut off the top, USPTO plans for expansion in response to increasing backlogs have been put on hold.  The new act will release these funds back to the USPTO. While the details have not yet been worked out, it is hoped that this release of revenues will allow the USPTO to hire many more examiners, and possibly open satellite offices, thus reducing the backlog of patent applications and allowing careers in patent examination for scientists who live outside of Washington DC.  

While changes in patent law may not affect the daily life of the bench chemist, shifts in philosophy over time will have an impact on companies intellectual property strategies, which will affect how chemists work. 

For more information, see Chemical and Engineering News, 2011 Oct 10, pages 36-37, and  What Every Chemist Should Know About Patents.  

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

Are You Allergic to Your Dream Job?

November 21, 2011

I recently ran into a friend I had not seen in several years.  We got to chatting, updating each other on the major events in our lives over those years.  Our children are about the same ages, so naturally we talked about what the kids were doing now.

She told me about her son, who had gone off to school to be a veterinarian.  All went well for the first couple years of his study, and even through the first semester of practical work.  However, when they moved to practical work on large animals, he learned (much to his dismay), that he was severely allergic to them, and couldn’t be around them for any extended period of time.  That put a quick end to his dreams of being a country veterinarian, and he is now re-positioning himself for a career as a medical doctor.  (Hopefully he won’t turn out to be allergic to people!). 

Her story reminded me of a scientist who came to me for career consulting a number of years ago.  He had received a generous severance package from a pharmaceutical company, and decided to use it to train himself to be a high school science teacher.  After two years of additional education, he got his first hands-on experience as a student teacher in an classroom with actual teenagers.  He quickly realized that reality was nothing like what he had expected, and this was not the right career path for him.  Now he was looking for help finding a new direction, and trying not to feel like he’d wasted two years and a significant amount of money. 

What is the common thread in both of these stories?  In both cases, the individual thought they knew what they wanted to do, and was willing to spend years preparing and studying to do that.  But in each case, they have had never really tried doing it.  They did not have any actual experience in the field, or even in something close.  When they finally got close enough to experience the real thing, it was not what they thought it was going to be after all.

I’m sure the same thing has happened to you.  Hopefully not this drastically, but we’ve all experienced something that turned out to be different from what we were expecting.  How do you avoid the kind of dramatic surprises that caught these two people unaware?

First, learn as much as you can about your goal.  Talk to multiple people who have the job you think you want, not just about how they got it, but also about what they do on a daily basis.  Ask if you can shadow them for a day or two, to see if what they really do is what they said they do.  Talk to multiple people at multiple companies, as each one is going to give you a different perspective on the career. Talk to people at different stages of the career, to see how their perceptions change over time. 

But ever better than talking about it, do it!  Find a way to try out the job.  Can you take on additional responsibility in your current job that is related to where you want to go?  Is there a volunteer opportunity (or can you create one) that would let you experience part of this new career?  Actually doing it yourself is best, because you not only learn whether or not you like doing it, but you also gain valuable experience that you can put on your resume.  A potential employer wants to know that you can do the job, and the best way is to show them that you already have done it (or something very similar).

So once you know where you want to go, do some research and make sure the destination is really what you think it’s going to be – and you won’t be allergic to it when you get there. 

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

Writing Small: When Less is More

November 14, 2011

A friend recently asked me if I had any suggestions for writing better email messages. He was having trouble getting people to read, let alone respond, to what he wrote. It got me thinking about what’s important, and how to write emails in a way that will make people want to read them.

Probably the most important part of your email message is the subject line. This is what people see first, and this is what makes them decide if they’re going to open it or not. Subject lines need to be short – they may only see the first few words, so those words need to really count.

My father would often send me emails where the entire message was in the subject line, and he would end with ( standing for “End of Message”). As soon as I looked in my inbox I knew exactly what he wanted, and I would often answer right away because I knew exactly what he wanted. Today you might do the same thing with a text message – if you know the other person has a phone that is capable of texting – or a tweet ( a 140 character message on twitter).

If you’re not going to be able to fit your entire message in the subject line, then you need to include enough information so that the reader wants to open the message and read the rest (just like with your cover letter, where you want to intrigue them enough to read your resume). Leave out any unnecessary words, and if there is a deadline including that can help spur the reader to action.

If you want to use an abbreviation or acronym, make sure your reader knows what it means – and that it means the same thing to them as to you. ACS means one thing to me, and probably most readers of this blog, but it means something completely different to volunteer for the American Cancer Society, or members of the American College of Surgeons.

For example, here’s a subject line from an email I received recently:

Subject: Workshop

Even when I looked at who the sender was, I had no idea if it was a question about a workshop I had presented there several months ago, or if it was a more urgent request for another workshop presentation in the next two months (which is what it turned out to be).

Here’s a great subject line from an email I received recently:

Subject: ASBMB 2012 Speaker Action Instructions

Right away I knew this email was going to tell me what I had to do as an invited speaker for an upcoming conference. The word “Action” let me know there was something I had to do, and sure enough it included a list of deadlines and details that I needed to take care of for this meeting.

If you need practice writing short and to the point, check out Twitter. Tweets (posts) can only be 140 characters, so it’s a great exercise in creative writing, and writing something useful in that few characters is a great way to force yourself to determine the real essence your message.

Everyone agrees that effective communication is one of the most important skills to succeed in business. If you want to be heard, you need to be able to communicate your ideas and expectations in a way that others can understand – and that includes making it fit into the space available.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

Older Job Hunters: Dealing with Misconceptions

November 7, 2011

Older chemists often have to deal with employer misconceptions when job hunting. Asked or unasked, interviewers may have questions about when you plan to retire. They may worry you have what they consider unreasonable salary requirements. Some hiring managers will believe your job skills are out-of-date or you have rigid work habits and can’t adapt to their workplace culture.   

You have to be proactive in addressing these concerns while demonstrating that your experience can work to your employer’s advantage. You can begin by considering whether you are addressing some of these concerns in your screening interviews and résumé cover letters.

Cover letters and interviews

Consider explaining why you are job hunting in your cover letter and raising the issue in your initial screening interview. Explain that you aren’t financially ready to retire because of the effects of the recent recession on your 401k plan. Alternatively you can say that you want to remain professionally active and challenged. You don’t need to provide details for any of your reasons.

Don’t mention the causes of your job loss or early retirement. So many companies have had layoffs that job loss is no longer an automatic indication of marginal performance.

Some hiring managers will have assumptions about your salary requirements compared to your previous jobs. Accept that you may be offered a salary less than what you earned in your previous job. If asked to state your requirements, say that you’ll accept a fair offer because you are eager to get back to work. If pressed to state a number ask what the employer is willing to pay you and negotiate from there.

You may wish to negotiate for job perks in lieu of a high salary. It is best to do this after receiving a job offer or in discussions with the employer’s human resources representative during your onsite interview. For example, many older job hunters ask for and receive more vacation time that the typical two weeks offered a new employee. When job hunting for my third job I was so eager to leave my current employer that I did not ask for more than the standard two weeks. Later I discovered that mid-career chemists hired around the same time I was were receiving more vacation time because they asked for it. I was angry at myself but by then it was too late. Fifteen years later when my division was acquired by another company, the employees who received job offers from the new owner were offered just two weeks vacation time even if they had had more previously. I asked for more and advised my colleagues to do the same. The new owners quickly modified their employment offers to offer us the same amount of vacation time we had previously.

Some hiring managers will believe your skills are out-of-date or you have rigid work habits and can’t adapt to their workplace culture. During interviews you can bring up how you adapted to cultural changes over the years and found the changes valuable in increasing productivity. Because of the complexities of these topics, it is best to wait to discuss them during interviews and not try to include them in your cover letter unless you want to mention that you have adapted to different workplace cultures in the past and are sure you can do so in the future.

Emphasize the positive

During interviews you can bring up the advantages of your experience. You have seen recessions before. There was a recession in the opening years of the new century preceded by earlier ones in 1980s and in the mid-1970s. . Comment that there is always recovery after recession and you want to be there for that.

Explain that you have kept your technical skills up to date and provide examples. For example, as a project manager I have used a methodology called mindmapping to organize and manage projects. There is software available to aid in doing this. I can open my notebook computer, load the software and explain the process to interested managers.

Emphasize your flexibility

Explain how your experience will enable you to get a fast start in a new job. Your learning curve will be short. If you are willing to work part-time, note this during interviews.

Emphasize the leadership and organizational skills that your experience has given you. Note that because of your experience you have seen many highly stressful situations in the workplace and survived them. You have emotional stability and a high tolerance for stress in these situations. Telling a “war story” about such a situation can’t hurt. However, don’t get trapped into nostalgia and telling anecdotes about “the old days” instead of focusing on how you can help employers meet their goals. 

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.