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

Written by Coursera Staff • 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 waves. 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 behaviour 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.

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 fibre optics for internet and data transmission. Fibre 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 fibres 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 a 2016 report by Photons Canada, the Canadian photonics industry already employed 25,000 people at that time [1]. In addition to private growth in the photonics industry, the Government of Canada announced $90 million in funding to the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre (CPFC) in 2022. This is in hopes to “solidify Canada’s role as a global leader in photonics [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 fibres

  • 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 Canada is $74,607 per year, as of March 2024 [3]. The salary may range from $56,000 on the low end to $99,000 on the upper end

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

To get a job as a photonics engineer, you must have at least a post-secondary degree, typically in electrical engineering, physics, or a related field. Degree subjects for aspiring photonics engineers include a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Physics or a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering. If you plan to pursue a career as a researcher or university professor, you’ll generally need a doctoral degree in engineering or a scientific field.

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. 

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 toward a career in photonics or just want to learn more, you can start now. Enrol in an online course like Quantum Optics I: Single Photons today.

Article sources


BDC. “Photon power: Why we are investing in Canada’s photonics start-up community, https://www.bdc.ca/en/articles-tools/blog/photon-power-why-we-are-investing-canada-photonics-start-up-community.” Accessed March 7, 2024.

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