Photonics Engineer Job Description, Career as a Photonics Engineer, Salary, Employment
Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job
Education and Training: Bachelor's degree or higher
Salary: Varies—see profile
Employment Outlook: Excellent
Definition and Nature of the Work
Photonics engineers work in the design, production, and use of laser and fiber optics technology. The job title comes from the word "photon," which is a unit of light. Photonics is the science of using light to generate energy, detect information, or transmit information. Fiber optics technology involves the transmission of light and images through hair-thin strands of plastic-coated glass fiber. The light in these fibers may be generated by beam-like devices known as lasers.
Engineers working in the laser and fiber optics field may design and modify laser equipment or components and may direct the testing of laser systems. They may also use lasers for a variety of useful applications in fields such as telecommunications, medicine, and defense as well as in the manufacturing and construction industries. Because large amounts of information can be transmitted quickly and reliably through optical fiber cables, this technology is replacing telecommunications systems that use metal wiring. In the medical field, lasers are used in numerous diagnostic and treatment procedures, and to perform delicate surgery on the eye and other parts of the body. Lasers are used in industry for aligning, marking, and drilling metals, plastics, and many other substances. In the military, lasers are used in navigation and to provide range information for weaponry and missile targets.
Most photonics engineers work for large telecommunications firms and optical fiber producers. They often specialize in solving problems relating to the light sources used in fiber optics. Photonics engineers are concerned with modulating light sources and controlling the light's wavelength, intensity, and duration. To measure light effectively, photonics engineers often use a spectrometer, a highly sensitive instrument that measures characteristics of light.
Some photonics engineers are primarily concerned with refining the purity of optical fibers. Innovations in this area are very important because impurities in optical fibers can contribute to energy loss. Other specialists create designs of optical fibers with exact dimensions and chemical compositions. Sometimes called optical designers, crystal growers, or optical materials scientists, these specialists generally must have a doctoral degree in chemistry, physics, or materials science. Still other photonics engineers develop methods to reduce production costs for making the fiber optics material.
Other photonics engineers work primarily with lasers, applying optics and laser technologies to many different industries. They work with either gas or semiconductor laser systems. Semiconductor laser systems are used primarily in telecommunications equipment, telephones, and computers. Engineers who work with gas-type laser systems design and apply systems that are used by the robotics and materials processing and medical industries. Many photonics engineers are employed by the Defense Department and by companies that manufacture lasers for the department under contract.
Education and Training Requirements
You generally 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. Some colleges offer work-study programs that combine work experience with formal classroom study. Certain positions in the laser and fiber optics area, 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 doctoral degree. All engineers should learn how to use computer-assisted design and drafting, and manufacturing (CADD/CAM) systems. The laser and fiber optics field is advancing rapidly, and engineers in this field must continually update their knowledge to maintain their expertise.
Getting the Job
Your college placement office may be able to help you find a job. If you are enrolled in a work-study program, you may be able to continue working for a participating employer after graduation. You can also apply directly to companies that hire photonics engineers. Jobs are listed in professional trade journals, newspaper classifieds, and Internet job banks.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Advancement depends on ability, education, and experience. 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.
The employment outlook for photonics engineers is excellent. Currently there is a shortage, and the demand for trained personnel in this field is expected to remain high.
Working conditions for photonics engineers vary. They usually work thirty-five to forty hours a week. Overtime may be necessary in some jobs, especially when project deadlines must be met. Research engineers generally work in clean, modern buildings. Laser engineers may work at manufacturing plants. They may also travel to locations where lasers need to be installed and maintained.
Photonics engineers should have a high degree of aptitude in physics and mathematics. They should work well with a team and be able to share information and ideas. They should also be meticulous and detail-oriented and enjoy solving problems.
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings and benefits vary depending on the education and experience of the engineer and the type of job. Photonics engineers generally earn higher salaries than do engineers in other specialties. In 2004 median annual earnings for engineers across all major specialties of engineering ranged from $56,520 to $88,500. Benefits include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.
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