Does My Degree Qualify Me to Take the Patent Bar?

By Gene Quinn
October 13, 2009

Some of the most popular pages month after month on IPWatchdog.com are our Patent Bar information pages, and given that I teach for the PLI Patent Bar Review Course we get a lot of e-mail inquiries regarding the patent bar examination.  Pretty much every week we hear from individuals who are interested in becoming patent agents or patent attorneys, and one of the questions that is most frequently asked relates to whether a certain degree qualifies one to take the Patent Bar Exam.  I completely understand why such a question is asked, and why there is so much uncertainty associated with what really should be a relatively simple inquiry.  Even though the Office of Enrollment & Discipline at the US Patent and Trademark Office provides detailed information about who can qualify, there are a lot of situations where individuals fall between the cracks and are not ideally presumptively able to take the Patent Bar Exam under Category A, and they may not neatly qualify under Category B either.  Hopefully this article will shed some light on the situation.

Ultimately the decision regarding whether an individual can take the Patent Bar Examination is up to the Office of Enrollment & Discipline, typically referred to simply as OED.  I am already admitted to practice, and my undergraduate degree (i.e., the only one that matters for qualifying under Category A) was in Electrical Engineering so I clearly qualified to sit for the exam.  Thus, I have never had the opportunity to try and contact OED to discuss a particular situation that may rest on the line and learn what it is that they tell such individuals.  I have repeatedly heard over the years that when folks contact OED asking questions about whether they qualify to take the patent bar no useful information is provided.  In fact, to a person I have heard the same story, which is that OED tells the caller that they cannot provide any information and that the only way to know for sure is to file an application to take the Patent Bar.  Not terribly helpful or enlightening really.


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I have no way of knowing whether OED provides truly non-responsive answers to inquiries, but there is probably some truth to this rumor, which is invariably always the same.  I can understand not wanting to provide advisory opinions to people over the telephone, but is there no information that can be provided?  The trouble is applying for the Patent Bar Exam to find out whether you qualify to take the exam is really not a viable option for the acquisition of such fundamental information.  This is true because when you apply to take the exam and you qualify you will receive an admissions ticket that grants you a 90 day window within which to schedule and take the Patent Bar Exam.  Typically the best approach is to take a patent bar review course, such as the PLI course, and then when you are a week or two into studying in the Post Course file the application to take the exam.  This will give you the best ability to gauge when you will be ready for the exam and not unnecessarily squander the 90 day window.  If you miss the window provided you need to apply again, and by then your knowledge starts to get stale.  So it is clearly preferable to study, apply and then take the exam, not apply, study and take the exam.  But investing the time and money to take a review course not knowing whether you can actually take the exam is not typically viewed as wise by individuals who may need to take additional courses before they can qualify under Category B.

So what information do we know that can help you get a better feel for whether you can take the exam?  Here is some hopefully useful information:

  1. Even if OED is not typically going to provide any useful information you might as well make a phone call and see if you can get any kind of guidance.  Given the cost of making the call and the time it takes, even if you get no actionable and useful information you haven’t lost anything.
  2. If you have a Category A undergraduate degree you will be allowed to take the Patent Bar Exam.  If your undergraduate degree is “similar to” or “essentially the same as” a Category A degree you will almost certainly NOT qualify under Category A.  Category A is about exact matching, and advanced degrees in Category A fields do not presumptively qualify you to take the exam.
  3. If you do not have enough credits to qualify under Category B you will need to find one of the options and take classes to get to the required threshold.  The USPTO does not care where you get the credits, just that you get them.  I have known plenty of individuals who have taken classes at local community colleges and qualified under Category B.  The key is that the credits need to be usable toward a degree listed on Category A, so Astronomy for Jocks, Astrology with Mrs. Cleo and Paranormal Activity 101 are not going to qualify you to take the exam.
  4. If you are close to the line and you get an admissions ticket take the exam in the 90 window and pass!  This likely seems obvious, but the OED has been known to erroneously allow people to take the exam.  Then when you fail and reapply they might notice their error and not allow you to take the exam.  I have known people who point out that “you let me take it once before,” apparently trying to make a fairness argument, which makes sense.  These people are told “we know, our mistake.”  So the OED is not going to compound a mistake by making it twice, so pass the first time!
  5. If you are willing to apply first and then study and take the exam there is absolutely nothing wrong with applying to take the exam.  You just need to be truthful and honest.  Remember, if you lie on your application that will be a major ethics violation if/when it is discovered, so tell the truth.  If you tell the truth and they let you sit for the exam then take the exam and pass and you will be a patent attorney or patent agent.

Now, in terms of taking and passing the exam, is it essential that you take a patent bar review course?  No, but it is HIGHLY recommended.  In any given year PLI teaches approximately 50% of the people who take the patent bar exam, whether in live courses or in home study courses.  The PLI pass rate for first time takers is approximately 90%, which live course takers having a slightly higher first time pass rate.  Typically the pass rate for all takers of the Patent Bar Exam is around 50%, so you do the math.  So there are a lot of folks who do not take a PLI course that are substantially pulling down the pass rate.  Factor in that there are some other courses out there and while they are not as popular as the PLI course and you can see that if you are going to go it alone you have a substantial uphill battle.  Finally, factor in that those who qualify to take the exam are those who are engineers and scientists who are as a group typically not known as being lazy or individuals who are used to failing exams and you get a sense for how difficult the exam is.

The morale of the story is this: you need a plan of action thought out in advance.  If you take a course, like the PLI course, you are going to need about 150 hours of study, which includes 50 – 60 hours during the immersion course and another 90 – 100 in the post course, which about 75 hours laid out for you by PLI.  So if you are unsure whether you qualify to take the exam you can apply and hope for the best, but do so at a time when over the subsequent 90 days you will have time to fit in 150 hours of preparation without rushing.

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and founder of IPWatchdog.com. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and an attorney with Widerman Malek. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 9 Comments comments.

  1. JRC October 13, 2009 5:31 pm

    My experience with the OED a few years ago largely tracks with what you written. I have an undergraduate degree in Computer Science from Stanford, but Stanford’s program is not ABET accredited (and so Category A qualification was out). I was also one physics class short of automatic qualification under Category B.iv since I had decided to take a chemistry class rather than a physics class to finish up my science requirement while at school. I otherwise had more than enough science/engineering units to meet qualification.

    I wrote to the OED to see if they would consider letting me sit for the patent bar even though I did not meet the explicit requirements. I wanted to avoid taking an extra physics class if I did not need to do so. The OED told me that they could not give me any info and the only way they would make a decision would be if I applied to sit for the exam.

    I then applied to sit for the exam and included arguments & documentation to show that my background was sufficient to sit under Category B.xii (other training – where the OED states they will consider other factors on a case-by-case basis). I mainly described the full body of my coursework and laid out why I believed I was qualified to sit. I was pleased when they granted my request, and I was allowed to take (and ultimately pass) the patent bar without having to take an additional physics class. It was not difficult to schedule a patent bar review course within the 90 days, and I took the exam toward the end of the 90 day window.

    So, my advice would be that if you’re close to the line in Cat. B and you can make a credible argument as to why you believe that you have sufficient technical expertise to sit, it may be worth applying to see if you can sit without investing the time to take a course at a community college or other institution. If the OED grants your request, the 90-day window should be sufficient to take a review course and sit for the exam.

  2. James October 14, 2009 12:07 am

    Gene,

    I majored in Materials Science & Engineering, and it absolutely baffles me how the Patent Bar exam doesn’t recognize it under Category A. Just like how the exam itself is completely outdated, the requirements for sitting in the exam are ridiculous – it has ceramic engineering and metallurgy as Category A and there isn’t probably not a single university left in the US that hasn’t grouped their ceramic department/metallurgy departments together and rename as Materials Science. My Materials Science building has the words “Building of Metallurgy” engraved in stone at the entrance – that was engraved more than 80 years ago. Sorry, I had to get it out. It’s just ridiculous.

    James.

  3. sgiles October 14, 2009 8:53 am

    So, if it is not necessarily wise to take a review course before completing the Patent Bar prerequisites, can you recommend study materials/procedure for individuals in the midst of taking classes to satisfy the required threshold?

  4. Gene Quinn October 14, 2009 12:36 pm

    Sgiles-

    If you are asking what one could due to become familiar with patent law prior to actually studying for the patent bar exam what I recommend is you get a copy of Patent Law, Third Edition, by Janice Mueller. See:

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/0735578311?tag=ipwatchdogcom&camp=213381&creative=390973&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=0735578311&adid=06WFZGNQXDNWD0PKB9XW&

    This is an excellent primer on patent law. It is easy to read, correct and it will give you some good basic understanding of patent law. It is excellent as a study aide for law students, and as a bring you up to speed quick reference for engineers, scientists and inventors.

    -Gene

  5. Gene Quinn October 14, 2009 12:38 pm

    James-

    Trust me, I feel your frustration. I hear this over and over. It is also particularly frustrating in the computer science area that the best, most respected programs in the country do not have the accreditation the USPTO requires for Category A because that particular accreditation is considered largely to be a joke by the industry.

    Hopefully better days are coming, but Kappos certainly has other, more important issues to fix before getting to the patent bar exam, which is truly sad in and of itself.

    -Gene

  6. Michael Feigin, Patent Attorney October 15, 2009 9:46 pm

    Filling out the paperwork to take the exam is an exam in and of itself. One thing I didn’t realize is that when you apply, they give you a 90 day window starting from…. whenever they decide to send you authorization. I called and called and called to try and get an extension thinking I’d for sure need more time (it was 1 week after my last final in law school at the time). No one ever answered the phone or returned phone calls. So… I took the PLI course which happened to finish the day before my 90 days were up, scheduled the exam for the last day possible, and … PASSED.

    The test is really easy on computer… the most important info I learned at the PLI course was in the very beginning. Memorize the chapter numbers that are important! Then, you can open a PDF version of a chapter and hit “Ctrl-F” (find) until you find the text in your question… the questions are taken right out of the MPEP. Also, memorize the tough questions on prior exams… they re-appeared verbatim and to this day, there’s one question I still don’t understand, but I got it right because I memorized the answer choice.

  7. Jason March 2, 2011 6:01 pm

    James: I have the same exact degree as you, which tells me that I will have to try to qualify under Category B. Did you ever try that route? If so, were you successful? Where did you get your MSE degree, if you don’t mind my asking?

    Thanks,

    Jason

  8. Bob August 28, 2012 2:50 pm

    I had no problem with registering and taking the patent bar exam in 1996 with a Materials Science & Engineering Degree. Perhaps the posters above received their degrees from non-accredited institutions and the USPTO did not recognize their degrees because their college degree program was not accredited

  9. James November 20, 2013 3:51 pm

    Pardon my asking and my naivety on the matter, but isn’t there also a Category “C”? I am an aspiring patent attorney and fully recognize that my degree (Economics and Political Science) are in a completely different field from qualifying under Categories A or B. I also understand that my 4-1/2 years working for an engineering firm does not do much to help my situation. However, am I correct in saying that the accompanying FE Exam (under Category C), qualifies me to sit on the exam?