If you have an analytical mind and a talent for math, a career in optics and optical sciences may be for you. Read on to learn more about educational options and career possibilities for optical scientists, as well what to expect in terms of job growth and earnings potential.
Optics and optical sciences explore the properties and uses of light, often by applying the principles of physics and engineering. Advances in optical science have affected nearly all facets of modern life, from hospital imaging equipment, telecommunications devices and high definition TVs to the Internet and homeland security technology.
As an optics and optical science specialist, you might pursue a career in government or private industry. Depending on your qualifications, you may be employed as an electrical or materials engineer, optical physicist or materials scientist. You could also work as a university professor and optics researcher. After you've acquired some experience in your field, you may qualify for a position as a production manager, systems engineer or manufacturing engineer.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of electrical engineers and material scientists was expected to grow by 5% nationwide between 2012 and 2022. Materials engineers are expected to see minimal or no change in opportunities during the same 10-year period. The BLS also reported that employment of physicists was expected to grow 10%, and job opportunities for postsecondary teachers were projected to grow by 19% from 2012-2022 (www.bls.gov). The national average employment growth for all occupations during this time was 11%.
As reported by the BLS in May 2013, the median annual wage for physicists, including optics physicists, was $110,110. During the same year, materials engineers and electrical engineers earned $87,330 and $89,180, respectively, while materials scientists made $88,660 a year. As of May 2013, the median annual wage for postsecondary physics teachers was $80,590 (www.bls.gov).
At the undergraduate level, you might pursue a bachelor's degree in engineering, physics, math or optical science. In addition to major coursework, your program might include room for electives and opportunities for introductory research. Along with campus-based learning, some schools offer undergraduate and graduate courses and degrees in optics online.
Many optical scientists go on to pursue master's and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees. Some programs are interdisciplinary and include topics in computer and electrical engineering, materials ophthalmology and radiology. You may also study math, materials science and physics. As a Ph.D. candidate, you'll also conduct independent research for your dissertation. Areas of interest might include adaptive, binary or diffractive optics; interferometry, solid state laser physics or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
As a Ph.D. holder, you may qualify for an advanced research position in optical devices or communications, microelectronics, nanostructured wireless technologies or narrow bandwidth laser sources. As an optical scientist with a Ph.D., you may also pursue a career in business or engineering.