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

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Explore this overview of photonics and photonics career paths, and learn how to get a job in photonics.

[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 generating, detecting, transmitting, and manipulating light in situations where its particle (photon) nature is essential.

What is the difference between optics and photonics?

Optics is often used interchangeably with photonics, but they have distinct meanings. Optics is a broad branch of physics that 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 in which its particle, or quantum nature, is essential. The difference between these two disciplines is mainly technological. Quantum optics tends 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 the Internet and data transmission. Fibre optic lines transmit pulses of light that receptors interpret as data to share with connected devices. Photons act as mail carriers, transferring information along glass fibres that are approximately 1/10 the size of a strand of human hair. The following list 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: Brain imaging is vital for surgical procedures in addition to diagnostics. 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. Solar power and the monitoring of wind, oil, and geothermal energy most commonly use photonic sensing. 

Careers in photonics

According to the Photonics Leadership Group, there are currently around 76,500 photonics jobs in the UK, with the plan to add nearly 150,000 more jobs by 2035. The industry was worth £14.5 billion in 2020, and its vision for 2035 is to grow it to £50 billion to become one of the top three manufacturing sectors in the country [1]. 

Photonics engineering and research

If you want to begin a career in photonics, consider becoming a photonics engineer. Photonics engineer is a broad title that encompasses many different specialisations. 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

  • Analysing 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 UK is £36,814 per year, and with experience, they can earn up to £45,000 [2]. 

Related roles and job titles

When 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 specialises in optoelectronic systems. 

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

Optical engineering

Like photonics engineering, optical engineering is a specialised 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 suitable role 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. Examples of degrees for aspiring photonics engineers to pursue include:

  • Bachelor of Science in Engineering Physics

  • Master of Electronic Engineering with Photonics

  • Master of Science in Photonics and Optoelectronic Devices

  • Master of Physics with Photonics 

  • Master of Science in Semiconductor Photonics and Electronics

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 summarise 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 CV. 

There are several ways to ensure recruiters notice your CV. 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 CVs 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 CV in the article below.

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 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 want to learn more, you can start now. Enroll in an online course like Quantum Optics I: Single Photons today.

Article sources


Photonics Leadership Group. “UK Photonics Vision for 2035 launched, predicting a £50 billion industry, https://photonicsuk.org/photonics-2035-a-new-vision-from-plg.” Accessed June 3, 2024. 

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