What Is Optical Engineering ? (+ How to Become One)

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Use this article to explore the field of optical engineering and the career path of an optical engineer.

[Featured Image] Someone who works in optical engineering examines a prototype lens on a robotic arm.

Optical engineering uses light to solve problems and create useful devices. To accomplish this, optical engineers must be technically proficient and have a thorough understanding of optics. Optics is a branch of physics that deals with the science of light. If you're interested in optics and enjoy working with technology, a career in optical engineering could be an excellent fit for you. 

What is optical engineering?

Optical engineering is a specialized branch of physics and engineering. It is the practice of using optics and engineering concepts to determine how light can be used to build devices. There are two primary branches of optics:

  1. Geometrical. Geometrical optics, or ray optics, focuses on the particle nature of light or rays. It is called "geometrical optics" because light rays are conceived as geometrical lines that extend from their source. Rays help us understand the paths along which light propagates (or spreads) under certain conditions. 

    Did you know? The beam produced from a flashlight is a good example of light’s particle nature and optical engineering. Tiny lenses underneath the light bulb redirect the paths along which light spreads. This manipulation of light rays creates the controlled beam that flashlights emit.


  2. Physical. Physical optics, or wave optics, is the study of light's wave properties. Instead of considering light's particle nature, wave optics consider light as an electromagnetic wave. Examples of light's wave properties include dispersion and polarization. 

    Did you know? If you have ever seen a rainbow, you have seen light's wave properties in action. When light enters a water droplet, each wavelength is reflected at a different angle—dispersing and reflecting white light into visible colors.


Common examples of optical engineering

You likely encounter examples of optical engineering every day. The chart below outlines a few examples of imaging optics and non-imaging optics that exist due to optical engineering. 

Imaging opticsNon-imaging optics
CamerasLED lighting
TelescopesLaser technologies
BinocularsFiber-optic illumination
MicroscopesCar headlights

What does an optical engineer do?

Optical engineers design and build optical systems and devices. They frequently work with computers, using specialized software to simulate scenarios and designs. The primary goal of optical engineering is to solve problems through the use of light and optical technology. Optical engineers spend most of their time researching, developing, and testing new devices, and enhancing existing designs.

Optical engineering jobs

Optical engineers work in a variety of industries. The following chart outlines several of these industries as well as five of the top employers for optical engineering roles. To determine the top employers, we looked at Glassdoor's list of the top companies hiring optical engineers as of August 2023. We further curated this list to eliminate companies with low employee ratings. Employee ratings are measured on a scale of one to five stars. They are calculated based on six categories: culture and values, diversity and inclusion, work/life balance, senior management, compensation and benefits, and career opportunities. 

CompanyIndustryEmployee RatingAverage Annual US Optical Engineer Salary


Computer Hardware Development


$198,944 [1]


Internet & Web Services


$244,180 [2]

Lockheed Martin

Aerospace & Defense


$119,726 [3]


Electronics Manufacturing


$132,844 [4]


Telecommunications Services


$131,466 [5]

Average optical engineer salary

The average salary for optical engineers in the US is $87,513 per year. Glassdoor reports the median additional pay per year to be $18,922. Additional wages may represent profit-sharing, commissions, or bonuses. Combining the average base salary with the median additional income per year equals a total average annual pay of $106,435 [6].

Optical engineering job outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in architecture and engineering is expected to grow 4 percent between 2021 and 2031 [7]. This statistic translates into around 200,900 job openings per year. Most job growth in this area will come from engineering careers. As of August 2023, there were over 300 job listings for optical engineers on Glassdoor [8].

Optical engineer job description

Depending on a company’s industry, specific job responsibilities may vary. The list below outlines some of the most common duties for optical engineers from any industry. 

  • Researching the science behind products

  • Investigating ways to improve existing optical systems

  • Designing and testing optical devices

  • Maintaining instruments and materials 

Essential skills checklist for optical engineers

  • Strong understanding of physics

  • Proficient in mathematics

  • Problem-solving skills

  • Manual dexterity

  • Ability to use scientific equipment, such as spectrometers and wattmeters

  • Collaboration and communication skills

  • Familiarity with optical tools such as Trace Pro and Zemax

  • Detail oriented

How to start a career in optical engineering

The level of education you'll need to become an optical engineer depends on the job, industry, and company. Overall, sixty percent of optical engineers hold a bachelor's degree, 22 percent hold a master's degree, 11 percent hold a doctorate, and four percent have an associate degree [9]. Relevant areas of study for optical engineering majors include physics, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering.

One example of a degree for aspiring optical engineers to pursue is a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering.

You can explore additional ways to prepare for a career in optical engineering below.

Build your skill set. 

Consider using the essential skills checklist above to guide your efforts. For example, if you have an extensive background in engineering, you may focus on building your physics expertise. Someone who wants to elevate their understanding of modern quantum optics may consider earning an online certificate in Quantum Optics I: Single Photons

In contrast, someone with a degree in physics who lacks engineering experience might take an online engineering course to fill the gaps in their knowledge. Georgia Tech’s Introduction to Engineering Mechanics is a beginner-friendly course that takes just 15 hours to complete.

Enhance your resume. 

Enhancing your resume is a crucial step for job seekers. To ensure recruiters notice your resume, try matching the language you use to describe your skills to the language used in job listings. Often, employers use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to process potential candidates. These systems use keywords to filter resumes and applications. In other words, you have a better chance of being selected if your words match the words they’ve input in the ATS. You can read nine more ways to enhance your resume in the article below.

Read more: 10 Ways to Enhance Your Resume

Stay current.

Another great way to demonstrate your expertise to employers is to stay current with industry trends and technologies in the optical engineering field. You might consider following industry leaders on social media, reading relevant blogs, and watching YouTube videos. For instance, you can stay up-to-date on advancements in the field of optics by subscribing to the Optica YouTube channel. You can also browse optics conferences and conventions with the SPIE website. SPIE is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing scientific optics research and engineering applications.

Start today with Coursera

Take the next step towards your career in optical engineering with the Optical Engineering Specialization from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Article sources


Glassdoor. “Apple Optical Engineer Salary, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/Apple-Optical-Engineer-Salaries-E1138_D_KO6,22.htm.” Accessed August 8, 2023.

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