What is Photonics? ( + How to Start a Career in it)

Written by Coursera • Updated on

An overview of photonics and photonics career paths. Learn how to get a job in photonics with this article.

[Featured image] A photonics engineer works on light-based equipment with tools in a lab.

Photonics definition

Photonics is the science and technological application of light particles, or photons. Photonics can also describe the study of any other radiant energy whose quantum is a photon. A “quantum” is the smallest measurable unit of a physical property. For example, a quantum of light is a photon, while a quantum of electricity is an electron. Photonics focuses on the generation, detection, transmission, and manipulation of light in situations where its particle (photon) nature is essential.

What is the difference between optics and photonics?

The term optics is often used interchangeably with photonics, but they have distinct meanings. Optics is a broad branch of physics. It studies the general behavior and properties of light, as well as vision and perception. Photonics is a subcategory of optics that focuses on the science and technology of photons. 

Photonics is very closely related to quantum optics. Quantum optics is the study of light wherein its particle, or quantum nature, is essential. The difference between these two disciplines is mainly technological. Quantum optics tend to be more theoretical. In contrast, photonics applies quantum optics concepts to discover and design practical applications.

Read more: What is Optical Engineering (+ How to Become an Optical Engineer) 

Photonics applications and examples

Photonics industries are extremely diverse because light-based technologies are highly prevalent in modern life. For example, photonics enabled the invention of fiber optics for internet and data transmission. Fiber optic lines transmit pulses of light that receptors interpret as data to share with connected devices. Photons act as a sort of mail carrier, transferring the information along glass fibers that are approximately 1/10 the size of a human hair. The list below contains a few more examples of photonics applications in everyday life.

  • Night vision. Night vision is integral for security, surveillance, and imaging. It is used in image intensification processes, automobiles, and military gear.

  • Brain imaging. In addition to diagnostics, brain imaging is vital for surgical procedures. Light-based technologies in medical imaging include positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).

  • Photonic sensors. Photonic sensors convert light into electrical signals. This technology is used extensively in the energy sector. Most commonly, solar power and the monitoring of wind, oil, and geothermal energy use photonic sensing. 

Careers in photonics

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), photonics careers belong to the architecture and engineering occupational field [1]. Employment in this sector is expected to grow 6 percent between 2020 and 2030. This figure translates into about 46,000 new jobs. Most of the job growth projected in this field can be attributed to engineering. Factors contributing to engineering job growth include increased interest in renewable energy, robotics, and infrastructure rebuilding [2]. 

Photonics engineering and research

If you want to begin a career in photonics, you may consider becoming a photonics engineer. Photonics engineer is a broad title that encompasses many different specializations. Specific job duties vary from industry to industry, but the responsibilities below apply to most photonics engineering roles:

  • Designing photonics equipment such as  optical fibers

  • Analyzing the performance of existing photonics materials and machines

  • Writing research reports and grants

  • Overseeing the manufacturing of new photonics technology

  • Documenting specifications and requirements for company usage

  • Researching photonics concepts, theories, and principles

  • Creating light-based energy systems 

Photonics engineer salary

The average salary for a photonics engineer in the US is $80,055 per year [3]. Photonics engineers also report an average yearly additional pay of $26,118. Additional income may encompass commissions, bonuses, and profit-sharing. Combined, these figures equal a total estimated annual pay of $106,173. 

Related roles and job titles

If you’re searching for a job in the field of photonics engineering, you may also encounter the following closely related job titles:

  • Photonics researcher/research scientist. A photonics researcher may focus more heavily on theoretical photonics. Their responsibilities are likely to be more research oriented, meaning they perform fewer electrical or mechanical tasks than a photonics engineer. 

  • Laser scientist. A laser scientist is a photonics engineer who specializes in optoelectronic systems. 

  • Photonics experimentalist. Photonics experimentalists focus primarily on hands-on lab work. They work with the design and engineering teams to optimize products, automate workflows, and engage in proof-of-concept experimentation. 

Optical engineering

Like photonics engineering, optical engineering is a specialized branch of physics and engineering. Optical engineers use optics and engineering concepts to determine how light can be used to build devices. The similarities between optics and photonics create significant overlap between the respective fields. Accordingly, someone interested in starting a career in photonics may also discover a role that’s right for them in optical engineering. 

How to get a job in photonics

Many photonics engineers begin their careers with a degree in electrical engineering, physics, or a related field. The table below shows the percentage of photonics engineers with each degree [4]. 

MajorPercentage of photonics engineers
Electrical engineering22%
Physics22%
Electrical engineering technology9%
Chemistry9%
Other majors38%

Examples of degrees for aspiring photonics engineers to pursue include a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering Physics or a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

Gain the essential skills. 

The checklist below includes both technical and workplace skills. Consider using it to identify areas of focus for building your photonics expertise. 

  • Creativity. Innovation plays a significant role in the career of a photonics engineer.

  • Strong mathematical skills. Photonics engineers often use algebra and trigonometry to calculate measurements and design components.

  • Technical proficiency. Understanding engineering principles and being able to apply them is integral to any photonics career. 

  • Thorough understanding of scientific principles. Knowledge of physics and scientific standards is essential for photonics professionals. 

  • Excellent communication skills. Photonics engineers write grant proposals and summarize research. These activities require the ability to translate complex technical concepts into accessible language.

  • Attention to detail. Many careers in photonics require the inspection, maintenance, and repair of technological equipment. 

Enhance your resume. 

There are several ways to ensure recruiters notice your resume. For example, match the language you use to describe your skill set to the language employers use in job listings. Employers often use applicant tracking systems (ATS), which allow recruiters to filter resumes via keywords and process candidates quickly. You have a better chance of being selected if your language matches the terms 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 with the industry.

Another way to demonstrate expertise to employers is by staying current with industry trends and technologies. You can follow industry leaders on social media or subscribe to relevant YouTube channels and blogs. In the field of photonics, you might check the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Photonics Society website for upcoming conferences. You can also keep up with the latest advancements in the photonics community with SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

Learn more about photonics with Coursera.

Whether you’re ready to take the next step towards a career in photonics or just want to learn more, you can start now. Enroll in an online course like Quantum Optics I: Single Photons today.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Data for Occupations Not Covered in Detail, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/about/data-for-occupations-not-covered-in-detail.htm#Architecture%20and%20engineering%20occupations.” Accessed July 21, 2022. 

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Architecture and Engineering Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/home.htm.” Accessed July 21, 2022. 

3. Glassdoor. “How much does a Photonics Engineer make? https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/photonics-engineer-salary-SRCH_KO0,18.htm.” Accessed July 21, 2022.

4. Zippia. “Photonics Engineer Education Requirements and Degrees, https://www.zippia.com/photonics-engineer-jobs/education/.” Accessed July 21, 2022.

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