What Else Can an Engineer Do?
By Susan Dennehy, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law
If you’re reconsidering whether to be an engineer, then it might be time to explore other career options. The technical training you received and the skills you have in problem-solving, logical thinking, and persistence are very desirable in a variety of other fields. Let’s consider a few of these.
Intellectual Property and Patents
Patent prosecution – which is the process of drafting and filling patent applications, and responding to actions issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) – is one field that requires a technical background. Positions in patent prosecution include patent engineer, patent agent, and patent attorney.
All of these patent practitioners can assist with putting together a patent application, reviewing and analyzing USPTO office actions (which is where the USPTO provides notice that something is amiss with a patent application) and making recommendations on how to respond to the USPTO’s action in order to get the patent application back on track. They may also conduct research and talk with inventors about the science or technology behind the invention to determine what exactly is new and unique about it. This is an essential task because a patent cannot be issued without a compelling claim regarding the innovation at the heart of the application
Henry Yu, who is a patent engineer at Sinorca, says that what he loves most about his work is that it “stimulates [him] to keep thinking.” In addition to drawing from his engineering background and allowing him to learn about new technologies every day, being a patent engineer provides him the opportunity to guide clients down the right path when they face bumps in the road on their way to obtaining a patent. Some people, Henry says, “don’t know how to reply” to an office action and might focus on an argument that won’t work while another, better argument is there to be made. That’s where he comes in. “I am happy I can provide my professional knowledge to help those applicants, who might not fully understand” the rules of the game.
Unlike patent engineers, patent agents and patent attorneys have taken and passed the patent bar exam, which enables them to represent a client before the USPTO. You must meet certain eligibility requirements before taking the patent bar exam and almost every engineering degree will qualify you for it. Patent attorneys, however, are the only patent practitioners who are able to provide legal advice to clients, represent them in court, and draft legal documents in preparation for licensing deals. Many people who start out as patent agents eventually become patent attorneys, which requires a JD degree. Many law schools now offer specializations or concentrations in intellectual property, e.g. NYU (IP & innovation); Northwestern (technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship); UC Berkeley (law & technology).
Roles in Business
For some patent practitioners the experience of working on patents gets them interested in business more broadly. This was the case for Amy Garber, who worked as a patent agent for 10 years after earning an engineering bachelor’s. She says that as a patent agent she developed an “overarching enthusiasm” for the “business side of intellectual property.” To pursue that enthusiasm further, she enrolled in the Master of Science in Law (MSL) program at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, which is designed exclusively for engineers and other STEM-trained professionals. The one-year MSL provides business-centered legal training that teaches students to communicate across disciplines, develop, protect, and manage IP, bring ideas to market, and navigate the legal and regulatory structures that exist in STEM settings.
In the MSL program, Amy learned how to treat IP as a business asset. “I like to engage in guiding patent (and other IP) asset decisions that directly support business strategy goals”, Amy says. She is now the Chief Intellectual Property Officer at Hazel Technologies, a startup she co-founded with classmates from Northwestern. Their objective is to extend the shelf life of produce, thereby reducing food waste and improving the efficiency of the food supply chain.
Amy credits her master’s program with giving her the training she needed to pursue her passion. “The MSL program has equipped me with both business and legal training so that I can make informed strategic decisions as a patent agent and as an entrepreneur. As an MSL alum, I have the vocabulary and understanding to bridge the communication gaps between technology, business, and legal affairs, which has helped to legitimize my spot at the negotiating table,” she says.
Some engineers know from the start that they are interested in business and their skills are often highly valuable in the business world. Their problem-solving and critical thinking skills are especially useful in business, where companies have to manage a variety of risks as well as respond quickly to competition and market disruptions, which are becoming more prevalent with emerging technologies.
Antonia Ivkovic currently works as a business risk project manager for Discover Financial. Among other things, her responsibility is to minimize overall legal and compliance risks and promote a risk-aware culture. “I enjoy learning about the various programs that financial service corporations put in place in order to de-risk the enterprises from legal, regulatory, and financial harm,” says Antonia. She also graduated from Northwestern’s MSL program and now finds it “easier to translate the languages spoken by lawyers, business partners, and analytics professionals as a result of [her] technical and legal background.”
Her advice to a young engineer who is exploring their career options is to “use [you] degree as a mechanism for creating opportunities. The critical thinking skills acquired through an engineering degree are highly transferrable to any industry. The global job market has evolved in such a way that what was once considered a ‘traditional’ career path is becoming increasingly more untraditional as people embrace the opportunity to find fulfilling work through career changes, so don't be afraid to make a move - regardless of the outcome, you can't make a mistake as long as you continue to learn from each of those steps.”
Another career path to consider is consulting, where technical skills are highly valued along with analytical and problem-solving skills. Companies call in consultants to study a problem they are having and provide solutions. Good consultants are innately curious, can absorb a lot of information quickly and synthesize it, communicate clearly orally and in writing, are strong team players, and get creative when solving problems.
Jessica DeWitt works as a consultant at Deloitte, one of the top consulting firms in the US, and says that “in consulting, every day is different.” This is because projects and clients change regularly. On any given day a consultant may be working on a few projects at various stages of completion. What Jessica loves most about consulting is its variety and versatility. “The nature of the consulting profession allows you to experience different places, companies, and functional areas at such a rapid pace. I believe consulting is a fantastic way to start your career because, from all of the varied experiences you will have, you can choose the career path that is right for you,” she says.
Engineers are particularly valuable in consulting because they have excellent problem-solving skills and are usually very persistent. The “try, try, try again” attitude is essential to success. If the solution that a company seeks were easy to find, they would have found it on their own; they bring in consultants to handle the particularly thorny issues that aren’t easily solvable. “As client’s issues are becoming more complex, consulting companies are seeking talent in STEM fields who possess strong analytic and technical skills developed through STEM education and experience,” says Jessica.
Engineers aren’t just for engineering. There are a lot of things you can do with your engineering training. The skills you acquired in school are transferrable to a variety of career paths, particularly in IP, business, and consulting.