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 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. It studies the general behaviour and properties of light, 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 incredibly 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 carriers, transferring information along glass fibres approximately 1/10 the size of 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: Brain imaging is vital for surgical procedures besides 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 monitoring wind, oil, and geothermal energy commonly use photonic sensing. 

Careers in photonics

The market for photonics in India is expected to grow to USD 70.04 billion by 2025, expanding at a rate of 7.9 percent. Many jobs are expected to come from the health care sector and focus on laser technology to treat and detect cancer and perform eye surgeries. Other factors are the rising use of fibre optics in the Indian broadcasting industry [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 India is ₹12,64,026 per year and is expected to increase by 53 percent by 2027 as market demand grows [2]. 

Related roles and job titles

When 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 specialising 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 the proper role 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, mathematics, or a related field. Examples of degrees for aspiring photonics engineers include a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Physics or a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering. If you already have a bachelor's degree in mathematics or physics, you can pursue a Master of Science in photonics or physics. You can increase your knowledge and job opportunities from there by pursuing an MTech, MPhil, or PhD in photonics.

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 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.

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 toward 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


Industry ARC. “India Photonics Market Estimated to Reach $70.04Million by 2025, https://ipsnews.net/business/2020/07/23/india-photonics-market-estimated-to-reach-70-04million-by-2025/.” Accessed March 27, 2024. 

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.