Becoming a photonics engineer is a very future-oriented career option. With the advent of photonics technology as an enabler of other technologies, it is an excellent study choice. However, the question remains; how do you become a photonics engineer?
This is no easy question to answer since photonics is multidisciplinary. There are several paths that lead to becoming a practicing photonics engineer. In this article, I will give you an insider’s perspective on the best way to wind up as a photonics engineer.
Photonics engineers need a strong background in physics, mathematics, and materials science. There are many STEM degrees that develop this type of background at the bachelor’s level. A bachelor’s degree in physics, electronics/electrical engineering, mathematics, etc. are all acceptable entry points for the discipline.
As a next step, a master’s degree is typically needed to qualify as a proper R&D engineer in photonics. More advanced photonics engineer and management roles open up if you obtain a PhD.
So, you want to become a photonics engineer?
Photonics engineer is actually a blanket term for a couple of related but inherently different types of jobs. Some photonics engineers design, while others test and yet others fabricate. So, our central question here should be refined to 3 different questions. How to become a photonics design/process/test engineer?
The answers to each of these questions have some common points as well as some important differences. Before going on to answer these questions, we must take a brief look at the journey you must embark on to become a photonics engineer.
The first step in this journey has to do with what you do in high school. Yeah, the mistakes you make in your youth will catch up with you eventually.
Study STEM subjects in high school
In high school, you should be taking as many classes as possible in STEM subjects. You should pay particular attention to physics, chemistry, and mathematics. This is a critical step.
The foundations you build during your high school years will be consolidated in college. At this stage, it is not customary to already zero in on photonics as a discipline. At this point, it is usually one of many engineering and STEM options open to you.
Bachelor’s level studies in photonics?
Next comes the undergraduate phase in college. To the best of my knowledge, photonics is seldom offered as a major at the undergraduate level. As I mentioned earlier, there are several different bachelor’s degree choices that can lead to a career in photonics engineering. In my opinion, a bachelor’s in applied/engineering physics is probably the best preparation possible for a career in photonics.
Study programs with specialized courses in photonics typically start from the master’s level. At this stage, the background you have from your previous studies can have a significant impact on how you cope with your studies.
My own story illustrates this quite nicely. I studied theoretical Physics at the undergraduate level. When I started studying for my photonics master’s, I realized I had to ‘shift gears’ and avoid getting lost in mathematics. Rather the emphasis was on the application of theory to solve practical problems.
This was new to me as I had been used to looking at things from a purely theoretical ‘lens’. Sure, I had a solid understanding of physical concepts but applying them to real-life situations means I need to adapt the way I approached things.
Master’s studies in photonics
The first year of master’s studies is spent studying core photonics courses. During the second year, the courses cover more advanced topics. In addition to the selection of advanced courses, there’s usually a master’s thesis.
At the end of the master’s, you should be a well-rounded professional who is ready to work in the industry. You know the basics and know when/where to find the information you need to solve various types of problems. The master’s thesis offers the possibility to focus on a chosen topic. This is the first area of specialization for a photonics engineer.
The master’s thesis could be oriented towards photonic design, photonic device processing, or photonic testing and experiments. Given the relatively short time frame (roughly 6 months to 1 year) allocated, it is usually not possible to have all 3 aspects in a master’s thesis.
Usually, you will find your first job in an area closely related to your master’s thesis work. This is not always the case though. It is OK to find work in a part of photonics that differs substantially from your master’s thesis.
This is not an issue since most master’s programs are designed to give you all the tools necessary to be an effective photonics engineer irrespective of the subfield you chose.
For example, during my master’s thesis, I worked on using meta-materials to design invisibility cloaks – yeah you read that correctly you can use photonics to do Harry Potter stuff :). The work mostly involved performing designs and simulations using tools like MATLAB and COMSOL Multi-physics.
Following my master’s, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. and in the end, I worked on integrating liquid crystal technology with silicon photonics. This involved design, processing, and technology steps as well as experimental testing.
PhD research in photonics
Is a PhD worth it/necessary (full disclosure, I did a PhD so my opinion may be biased)? Master’s studies are more focused on giving you breadth and introducing you to the main aspects of photonics. A PhD on the other hand provides more depth and allows you to develop your skills further to become an expert in a specific subfield of photonics.
It is of course possible to develop your skills further and become an expert in a given subfield by moving to industry after the master’s level. However, the PhD offers a unique opportunity to work on the most challenging projects without worrying about the commercial aspect.
A company’s main goal is to generate profits. These profits are usually expected to roll in sooner rather than later. This means exploratory early-stage research with a high risk for failure and no clear commercial potential is not interesting for companies.
A PhD in photonics allows you to focus on producing prototypes of photonic devices without worrying too much about their immediate commercial potential.
In my case, I decided to complete a PhD since I had the opportunity to work on really cool technology. I worked on enhancing passive silicon photonic components by overlaying them with liquid crystals. The result: electrically tuneable photonic components which are the building blocks of future photonic integrated circuits.
Additionally, the level of responsibility and engagement needed for a PhD is seldom found in industry. In order to successfully complete a PhD in photonics engineering, you need to wear many hats concurrently.
You need to be a project manager, design engineer, process engineer, test engineer, data analyst, and technical writer. It is a wonderful personal project which is all about expanding the boundaries of knowledge and learning about yourself in the process.
Photonics is still at a stage where the ‘distance’ from fundamental research to practical applications can be rather short. In such a context, a PhD can add tremendous value to your profile and open up many opportunities for you.
Links for photonics master’s programs worldwide
In this section, I provide you with a curated list of excellent photonics masters programs around the world.
- The college of Optics & Photonics, The University of Central Florida (Orlando, Florida, USA)
- The Institute of Optics, University of Rochester (Rochester, New York, USA)
- Karlsruhe School of Optics & Photonics, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Karlsruhe, Germany)
- Abbe School of Photonics, Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Jena, Germany)
- Photonics program, Imperial College London (London, UK)
- Optoelectronics Research Centre, University of Southampton (Southampton, UK)
- Photonics Program, KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm, Sweden)
- Light sciences and technology, University of Bordeaux (Bordeaux, France)
- International master in physics, photonics, and nanotechnology, University of Bourgogne (Dijon, France)
- Joint master of science in photonics, Ghent University / Free University Brussels (Ghent/Brussels, Belgium)
Please kindly get in touch if you know about other photonics masters programs which can be added to this list.
In conclusion, photonics engineering is an exciting and forward-looking career choice. Becoming a photonics engineer is a multi-year journey that starts with taking lots of STEM classes in high school. Following this, you should read engineering physics or a closely related major at the undergraduate level.
A bachelor’s degree is enough for a technician-level position. If you intend to work at a higher conceptual level, it is usually necessary to obtain a master’s degree. The master’s degree in photonics offers breadth as well as some depth in some subfield of photonics. A master’s degree in photonics is typically the minimum qualification for working as a photonics R&D engineer.
You can decide to work in the industry or double down and complete a PhD. This entails focusing on the same topic/problem for a couple of years. Eventually, you should become one of the world’s leading experts in this area. Attaining a PhD opens up advanced roles in industry and research institutes.