I spent my PhD carrying the wild idea that afterwards I could do a couple
of post-docs, pick up a lectureship and cruise into retirement.
OK, now that you’ve stopped laughing and cleaned the coffee spray from the
journal, I’ll continue.
Obstacle number one came when I arrived in Canberra and there were no
microbiological post-docs. After nine months of disheartening lack of
Julie in a relaxed
frame of mind
or interviews where the job went to someone who used to work there before,
I revised my sights down a little and applied for technical management jobs.
I was appointed the manager of a new biotechnology resource facility, with
the job of setting up the facility, developing training courses and
maintaining equipment. It had one thing in common with a post-doc – it was a
three year contract.
When the contract ended I wasn’t rehired, but no-one else was either. After
giving birth to my son, finances were tight as my ‘post-doc’ing husband’s
contract was due to end. I was eventually rehired to run the facility, but
with increased responsibilities (and pay, thank goodness).
However, the old adage that you should ever go back proved to be true in my
case. I returned at a time of great upheaval at the ANU, and particularly in
my department. ‘Politics’ was always present. Despite having sought to
recruit me, once I returned to the post the validity of such a resource
being funded was regularly being questioned. I was left feeling isolated,
undervalued and underutilised. I also lost a lot of confidence in my
I don’t believe it was ever personal; that people wanted me to go per se. It
was more a question of the position being seen as a drain on money that
researchers wanted for their work. At a time of great upheaval and funding
cuts, this was entirely understandable. But it didn’t help me.
During those 30 months I suffered several serious illnesses, three requiring
hospital visits. I resented being away from my son with no real work to do.
I was obviously stressed and something had to change.
My husband had escaped the postdoc merry-go-round by moving to IP Australia
(the patent office) in 2006. He moved purely to have a secure job, and had
expected it to be boring but bearable. However, he ended up enjoying the
challenges and felt that he was in a more flexible, family-friendly
I saw this as my best chance of a career that would satisfy me and make
family life more enjoyable for all of us. IP Australia allows flex time and
the option of reduced working hours after completing training and also
allows examiners to work from home a few days a week (with certain
provisos). I also knew of at least one senior examiner who had been promoted
into the senior position while working part-time. This could let me have a
fulfilling career and a family life. So I applied, was interviewed and
offered a position.
I started on the 29th of January 2008. It felt incredibly different from day
one. For one thing, I was wearing a suit! For another, I had a clear
training and career structure. I could move up if I wanted to – I had
something to aim for. As a technician in a university environment, usually
the only way to move up is to move out. It’s almost impossible to get
promoted within your position. This means that ambitious people have to
leave the area in which they are an expert, meaning that the university
I also felt exhausted! But in a good way – I was exhausted because I was
using my brain, taking in vast amounts of new information and having to
apply those new skills constantly. I felt that my PhD had been worthwhile
for the first time in years.
The first few months were a blur of new words, phrases and acronyms. PSA,
CGK, PQRS, the difference between consist and comprise and what on earth
Article 34s were all filtered into my brain.*
And, I really enjoyed it. I liked the research aspect of it. I liked the
legal analysis; a new concept for me. An examiner has to probe the existing
literature, have knowledge of the field and combine that with a legal
interpretation of the claimed invention to determine whether the patent is
There is a lot of ‘process’ that has to be followed and having passed my
basic training and moved into the real world of examination I am finding
that my thorough scientific attitude and attention to detail isn’t as
thorough as I had thought it was! But it is still enjoyable for almost all
of the time.
There are drawbacks – I’ve had to accept that I will never get my name on
another scientific paper and that I am no longer a bench scientist. Having
defined myself in that way for many years, it has been difficult at times to
accept that part of my life has gone. As my job is actually a legal job,
using scientific knowledge, it’s a lot less cut and dried than science. I
have to interpret what the inventor means and not everyone has the same
interpretation. There are very few wrong answers. I found that an incredibly
difficult concept to handle at first. As a public servant, it is my job to
apply the laws passed by government, which is incredibly frustrating if the
law appears inadequate, over cumbersome or both. It is not my job to change
the law, merely to apply it.
But the pluses far outweigh the minuses. Working with my husband has helped
home life too, as we can chat over coffee at work instead of trying to talk
over an exuberant three year-old who wants me to be a train or a horse or a
*PSA – person skilled in the art, aka the standard skilled, non-inventive,
person in that field.
CGK – common general knowledge.
PQRS – product quality review system (a quality control system).
Consist and comprise – consist means only those things can be there,
comprise means those things must be there but it doesn’t preclude other
things being there too (eg a plasmid comprising a resistance gene allows for
other genes to be present too).
Article 34s – a type of amendment made by the applicant at the international