Career Interview: Karen Imgrund Deak, PhD

Director, MS in Patent Law and Certificate in Patent Prosecution
University of Notre Dame

ASHG: What non-scientific skills (communication, artistry, athleticism, etc.) are important for your job? Were any of these skills unexpected assets for you?

Dr. Deak: Written communication is HUGE in the field of patent law — you are emailing with attorneys and clients; and corresponding with the U.S. Patent Office in writing. You need to be precise with language. Period.

Also important is a real attention to detail, while juggling many projects (e.g., time management). Patent law is very deadline-driven, and dates can’t be missed. So projects have to be done on time, no excuses.

Finally, a real knack for logic is helpful. The most important part of the patent is the claims, and there is a logic to how good claims are written.

ASHG: If you could go back to when you were a trainee, what is one piece of advice you would give yourself for your current career?

Dr. Deak: I would say to myself to stick it out, because a PhD in a life science field is very valuable in the practice of patent law — the PhD really does open doors for you. It proves that you’re good at learning technology, which is really what the day-to-day of practicing patent law is all about. I’m glad I did finish my degree.

The other thing I would tell myself is that it’s possible to leave the academy. People do it, very successfully, all the time, although it wasn’t much spoken of at the place where I did my PhD work. If you’re sure you want to get out, do it at a reasonable checkpoint — leave after your PhD (instead of slogging through a post-doc that you know you’ll hate).

ASHG: Can you describe your transition from trainee to working professional? How did you land your first “real” job?

Dr. Deak: I landed my first real job by doing lots of hard work. I sent out around 100 resumes and cover letters, each tailored to the position I was applying for, and asked for lots of informational interviews.

I landed my job by combining those two efforts — the position I interviewed for was posted, so I applied to it; and by the time I sent in that application, I’d had so many informational interviews that I had a really good “story” about both my PhD work and why I wanted to make the transition into patent law. Leaving the academy can be scary, but it was the right move for me, at the time.

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