Two hands holding the light bulb that is illuminating. Creative protecting patents and ideas concept.

Graduate Students’ Curricula Should Include Intellectual Property

By Matt Bauer

Science and engineering graduate students’ curricula should include cross-disciplinary studies in intellectual property (IP).

These students research, discover, and invent new technology and methodologies for their thesis work. Accordingly, they should be better equipped to understand and navigate the fundamentals of intellectual property to protect those innovations.

Why do we need additional training in intellectual property?

Doctoral students in science and engineering focus during their thesis work on the process of discovering novel therapeutics, molecules, or platforms with the end goal of publishing these findings in journals. Intellectual property protections such as patents, trademarks, copyright, and trade secrets are usually an afterthought in this discovery process. While having an interesting and novel scientific finding doesn’t always equate to meeting the bar to patentability in the U.S., students should be empowered to understand this process more thoroughly, which would increase their capacity for agency.

Here’s an example of why this knowledge is needed: recent U.S. patent law utilizes a first-to-file system. Publicly disclosing or sharing your innovation with a third party could therefore harm your chances of being granted a patent. An eager graduate student presenting their new finding at a conference might have all the right intentions for sharing their scientific work, but it may come at the cost losing patents on their work.

Patents are not the only form of IP that students need to know about, as copyright can be a primary method of protecting some forms of software code. Students may only know about hot topics in the news such as the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., which involves computer code and copyright law. These prominent cases may raise awareness of the issue generally, but they don’t serve as relevant outlets for helping students begin to engage these topics in their daily work.

Outside of the practical uses of IP to protect innovations and aid in commercialization of some technologies, they are also seen as academic accolades. Faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and students can readily find places on application forms to scholarships or fellowships to list “awards” such as patents. As the value of being listed as an inventor on a patent expands beyond the traditional system, there is all the more reason for students to receive training about IP.

Potentially the most relevant case for teaching students about IP is that they may want to leverage this knowledge to turn their laboratory discoveries into new biotechnology companies. Indeed, a number of students within PhD programs are choosing non-academic career paths and learning how to leverage their hard work in graduate school towards securing patents for a to-be-company. One of the most important factors for funders of biotechnology companies is the IP portfolio the company might have or be able to license.  Teaching students early on during their PhD training about these processes will help create more agency for students.

What might an IP education for graduate students look like?

At many universities, there is a patchwork system of in-house counsel intellectual property specialists or offices of technology development. These offices generally work by engaging the faculty about what projects might exist in the laboratory that could be worth protecting. The current pain points in the system are 1) these offices provide good online resources, but inexperienced users may not know what to look for or fully understand them, and 2) they place much of the burden of seeking out advice on the end users – the students. The result is that those who already know the benefits of IP protections are the main benefactors. The issue here is that while many, if not all, students pursuing a graduate degree hope to make impactful discoveries, very few come to graduate school with plans to secure a patent, or even know what one might be.

On their own, some university students are looking for ways to get ahead of this knowledge gap, by implementing different student-run workshops and seeking the help of external legal groups. While these informal clubs can be helpful to engage students, they suffer from being under-funded and lacking resources, which ultimate limits the scope of their impact. Another strategy these clubs take is to invite established patent-focused law firms to give mini, topic-specific workshops. These resources are excellent, but come with the trade-off as serving the law firms as potential recruitment tools for soon-to-be graduated students to work at the law firm. Neither option fully solves the problem, but both provide good initial touch points.

A potential solution to this patchwork system would be to implement mini courses for academic credit, which are taught specifically to the needs of graduate students at the university. This could include basic workshops which provide an overview of various IP protections, guest lectures by law school professors and university in-house counsel members, and walk through real-world examples for when and how to contact the university IP offices in the future. By offering this training as a class for academic credit, students across many different graduate programs and years of study will all receive a uniform IP education. A number of students that might not have time to attend a workshop by a student-run club during the evening may have dedicated time to take an official course in IP.

Some may argue that if students really desire to learn about IP they should just cross-enroll in a law school introductory IP course. However, this isn’t likely to meet the needs of the graduate students in the sciences, who need practical advice, real-world examples, and the empowerment to find support from university IP offices.


Matt Bauer is a PhD student in the Harvard Biological and Biomedical Sciences program. His research currently focuses on developing genomic tools for infectious disease surveillance.

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