Engineer working with lasers

A photonics engineer could...

Help save lives by designing laser tools that are used in delicate eye and heart surgeries. Laser eye surgery Develop better fiber optics to transmit large amounts of data around the world in the blink of an eye. communications model
Design LED-based car headlights that are stylish, energy efficient, and bright enough for driving safely. LED headlights on sports car Dazzle and entertain crowds by developing specialized lasers for rock concerts and art installations. Concert lighting
Find out more...

Key Facts & Information

Overview In the first dozen years of the 21st century, the Digital Age, you can send and receive email from around the world in the span of a few minutes. Surgeons routinely perform laser surgery that results in less bleeding and faster healing time. Our Air Force defends our skies using electronics-based aircraft that can almost fly itself! What is one of the connections among these advances? Photonics technology! Photonics is the science of using light and electronic devices to create tools that improve our lives. Isn't it amazing that light can solve so many different kinds of problems?
Key Requirements Meticulous and detail-oriented personality, should enjoy solving problems, teamwork skills are extremely important as is the ability to clearly state and share ideas
Minimum Degree Bachelor's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, calculus; if available, applied technology
Median Salary
Photonics Engineer
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Little or No Change (-2% to 2%)
  • Watch this interview with Dr. Bruce Brinson and discover what he believes photonics engineers need to know in order to succeed.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Most photonics engineers begin as assistants to experienced engineers. As they gain experience, they may become supervisors or specialize in a particular aspect of laser or fiber-optics technology. Some engineers advance to management positions. A few engineers with the necessary education can become research directors or principal engineers. Engineers may also advance by starting their own consulting or manufacturing companies.

Photonics engineers should learn how to use systems for computer-assisted design and drafting (or CADD) and computer-assisted manufacturing (or CAM). The laser and fiber-optics field is advancing rapidly, and engineers in this profession must continually update their knowledge to maintain their expertise by taking classes.

Education and Training

You need at least a bachelor's degree in one of several engineering specialties to enter this field. These degrees include electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, engineering science, or engineering physics. Some colleges and universities offer degrees in optics technology or photonics. It usually takes four to five years to earn a bachelor's degree in engineering. Certain positions in the laser and fiber-optics profession, such as optical designer, require an advanced degree. You can obtain a master's degree in one or two years of additional full-time study. It generally takes about four years of study after earning a bachelor's degree to receive a PhD. A PhD is required to teach at the university level in this field as well as for industrial research and development positions.

Other Qualifications

Photonics engineers should be creative, inquisitive, analytical, and detail oriented. They should be able to work as part of a team and to communicate well, both orally and in writing. Communication skills are becoming increasingly important as photonics engineers frequently interact with specialists in a wide range of fields outside of engineering.

In this video Dr. Stanley Rogers of the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base describes what photonics is and how it can be used in several applications.

Nature of the Work

Advances in technology and communications move at the speed of light. Much of our communications system is based on transmitting information, in the form of light, through optical fibers. Engineers who develop the tools and technical applications of light are called photonics engineers. The science of photonics is the generation, transmission, modulation, and detection of light.

Photonics engineers are concerned with devising and improving sources of light and the optical fibers that the light travels through. These engineers must have a thorough knowledge of physics, engineering, and optics. Working in this field allows one to investigate a variety of areas. Photonics engineers can:

  • Design and modify laser equipment and components for manufacturing, defense, telecommunications, and medicine. Lasers can be made from semiconductors or from gas.
  • Improve the quality and design of fiber optics technology.
  • Devise methods for reducing the cost of manufacturing lasers, optical fibers, and fiber optics.

As the need increases for humans to share information faster using precision equipment, photonics engineers can expect to be at the forefront of cutting-edge technology.

Work Environment

Most photonics engineers work in office buildings, laboratories, or industrial plants. Some engineers travel extensively to plants or work sites, both in the U.S. and abroad. Many engineers work a standard 40-hour week. At times, however, deadlines or design standards may bring extra pressure to a job, requiring engineers to work longer hours.

On the Job

  • Design, integrate, or test photonic systems and components.
  • Develop optical or imaging systems such as optical-imaging products, optical components, image processes, signal-process technologies, and optical systems.
  • Analyze system performance or operational requirements.
  • Write reports or research proposals.
  • Assist in the transition of photonic prototypes to production.
  • Develop and test photonic prototypes or models.
  • Conduct testing to determine functionality and optimization or to establish limits of photonic systems or components.
  • Design electro-optical sensing systems.
  • Read current literature, talk with colleagues, continue education, or participate in professional organizations or conferences to keep abreast of developments in the field.
  • Conduct research on new photonic technologies.
  • Determine applications of photonics appropriate to meet product objectives and features.
  • Document design processes including objectives, issues, and outcomes.
  • Oversee or provide expertise on manufacturing, assembly, or fabrication processes.
  • Train operators, engineers, or other personnel.
  • Determine commercial, industrial, scientific, or other uses for electro-optical applications or devices.
  • Design gas lasers, solid-state lasers, infrared, or other light-emitting or light-sensitive devices.
  • Analyze, fabricate, or test fiber-optic links.
  • Create or maintain photonic design histories.
  • Develop laser-process designs such as laser-cut medical devices.
  • Design laser-machining equipment for purposes such as high-speed ablation.
  • Select, purchase, set up, operate, or troubleshoot state-of-the-art laser-cutting equipment.


Companies That Hire Photonics Engineers

Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...

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Science Fair Project Idea
How does the intensity of a light source change as you move away from it? This project describes a method to verify the inverse square law: how light, sound, electrical signals, and gravity each decrease with distance from their source. It does not matter if you are talking about a lightbulb or the sun; this law still applies! Read more
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Think it takes expensive, sophisticated equipment to measure the speed of light? Think again! Outfit yourself with a simple handheld laser pointer, a protractor, and gelatin, and you're ready to get started. Read more
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Everyone has experienced the warmth provided by a shaft of sunlight through a window. In this physics science fair project, you will determine how the color of an object affects the amount of radiant energy that is absorbed. You will then use the Stefan-Boltzmann equation to determine the amount of energy that is absorbed and re-emitted by the different colors. Read more
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Did you know that you can tell how much information is on a CD-R without even using a computer? Find out how in this "reflective" experiment. Read more

Ask Questions

Do you have a specific question about a career as a Photonics Engineer that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.


  • BLS. (2016). Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), 2016 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
  • NIH Office of Science Education. (n.d.). LifeWorks. Retrieved March 20, 2014.
  • O*Net Online. (2016). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
  • # Link Name="Photonics.Engineer.5" Value="HtmlAnchor" HtmlText="" #] (n.d.). Photonics Engineer Job Description, Career as a Photonics Engineer, Salary, Employment - Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job. Net Industries. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
  • OPTECcom. (2009, June 10). Photonics Career Videos: Dr. Bruce Brinson. Retrieved June 17, 2010, from
  • ThinkTVPBS. (2009, January 29). Engineering Your Future - Photonics Engineer. Retrieved May 28, 2019, from

Additional Support

We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:

  • Intel Foundation
  • Northrop Grumman
  • Seagate
Free science fair projects.