Optical Engineer: Salary & Job Description

Apr 05, 2018

Optical engineering offers job opportunities in a wide variety of industries. This career often requires completion of a graduate degree program and might require an engineering license.

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What is an Optical Engineer?

In the most basic sense, optical engineers research, design and test devices that use optics, like cameras, lasers, microscopes and refractometers. By harnessing the properties of light and other materials, optical engineers are able to produce, control and manipulate light for use in high-tech devices.

These professionals can apply their skills across a wide variety of industries, including agriculture, aerospace, computers, entertainment, lighting, medicine, oil and textiles, among others. For example, an optical engineer might work for a scientific and technical instrument company, designing and testing optic devices that will be included in molecular diagnostic instruments. Or he or she might design opto-mechanical equipment for a company that specializes in aerospace and defense technology. Optical engineers also might work with observatories, helping to maintain telescopes and test other astronomical instruments.

Educational Requirements Bachelor's degree required, Master's degree often preferred
Job Skills Solid understanding of math and physics, proficiency with optical design and analysis tools, familiarity with scientific equipment, problem-solving skills, manual dexterity
Median Salary (2018)* $86,027
Job Outlook (2016-2026)** 5-9%

Source: *PayScale, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Required Education

Some colleges and universities offer optical engineering programs at the bachelor's degree level, but more often, this field is studied as part of a master's or doctoral program. These programs typically include classes and labs in topics like physical optics, geometrical optics, nanophotonics and optical communications systems, as well as one or more advanced mathematics courses. Students also might study laser systems and quantum electronics.

While most employers seek graduates of master's or doctoral programs in optical engineering, some will accept a bachelor's degree coupled with several years of experience in lieu of a graduate degree.

After graduating from an accredited engineering program, prospective engineers might opt to earn a professional engineering license, which could allow them to work with more autonomy or qualify for more advanced positions. Licensure is granted on a state-by-state basis, but engineers generally must meet education and experience requirements and pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Professional Engineering (PE) exams.

Required Skills

Optical engineers need solid skills in math and physics, along with problem-solving skills, to work in this emerging engineering field. They also should be well-versed in one or more optical design/analysis tools, such as Zemax, Code V or Trace Pro, and be able to use various scientific equipment, including calorimeters, spectrometers and wattmeters. Working with some of this equipment also will require manual dexterity.

Career Outlook and Salary

For classification purposes, optical engineers fall under the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) category of 'engineers, all other.' These professionals were expected to experience average employment growth of 5% to 9% between 2016 and 2026, per the BLS.

Optical engineers earned a median annual salary of $86,027 as of March 2018, according to PayScale.

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