What is an Optical Engineering Degree?

Optics is the branch of physics and engineering that involves the properties of light and how it interacts with matter. Optical engineers use lasers, lenses, spectrometers, and other systems that manipulate light to design equipment used in a wide array of fields, from medicine and manufacturing to communications and space exploration. Students of optical engineering gain the theoretical knowledge and practical skills needed to work in these and other sectors.

Earning a degree in this field begins with foundational courses in mathematics and science. Lectures and labs then focus on the combined use of electronics and light; laser systems; optic fiber transmission capabilities; generating, detecting, and manipulating light; and designing optical systems.

Program Options

It is important to note that some schools do not offer a standalone optical engineering degree. In these cases, optical engineering may be offered as one of the concentrations available within the electrical engineering or mechanical engineering department.

Bachelor’s Degree in Optical Engineering – Four Year Duration
While bachelor’s degree programs in optical engineering have been rare, they are becoming more common. The curriculum at this level is introductory in scope. The objective of both its lecture and laboratory components is to prepare students for further study in the field or for entry-level jobs in the optical engineering workforce.

Here are some samples of courses that make up the typical optical engineering undergrad program:

  • Foundational courses in advanced mathematics and science
  • Optoelectronics – introduction to optoelectronics, the branch of technology concerned with the combined use of electronics and light; fundamental concepts for understanding electro-optics devices and systems
  • Laser Systems – introduction to spontaneous and stimulated emission, population inversion, optical resonators, three- and four-level systems, Q-switching and mode-locking, semiconductor lasers, integrated optic waveguides and couplers, scanning systems, high-power industrial application
  • Optical Fiber Communications – introduction to fibers and their transmission characteristics, optical fiber measurements, sources and detectors, noise considerations for digital and analog communications, optical fiber systems
  • Photonics Laboratory – generating, detecting, and manipulating light; photonic devices, wave nature of light, diffraction, spectral measurements, refractive index, single mode and multimode fibers, simple optical communication systems, fiber optic sensors
  • Optical Engineering Design – proposal of an optical or optoelectronic system design project, followed by project design, analysis, development, and prototype testing

Master’s Degree in Optical Engineering – Two Year Duration
The master’s degree is the most common credential in the field of optical engineering. At this level students can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. Possible concentrations include optics, optoelectronics, optical materials and materials science, and optomechanics. The program’s culminating requirement is a thesis based on original research.

Doctoral Degree in Optical Engineering – Five to Six Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of optical engineering.

Below are a few examples of graduate level courses in optical engineering. The courses taken by individual master’s degree and Ph.D. candidates will vary, depending on the focus of their thesis or dissertation.

  • Communication Theory – transmission properties, distance capacity, and bandwidths of optical fiber technologies; optical sources and detectors; fiber cable design; development and implementation of communication networks
  • Geometrical Optics – foundations and physics of geometrical optics; how to use prisms, spherical surfaces, lenses, and mirrors within optical systems such as cameras, telescopes, and microscopes
  • Physical Optics – polarization, interference, and diffraction; wave characteristics; the difference between physical, wave-based, and geometrical optics

Other possible classes from the graduate curriculum include:

  • Radiometry, Detectors, and Source
  • Introduction to Quantum Mechanics
  • Optical and Photonic Systems Design
  • Optical Communications
  • Lasers
  • Optical Testing Laboratory
  • Applied Quantum Mechanics
  • Lens Design
  • Optical Design and Manufacturing
  • Optical Scattering Theory
  • Quantum Devices

Degrees Similar to Optical Engineering

Laser Technology
Degree programs in laser technology – also referred to as laser and optical engineering technology – teach students the skills necessary to work as laser or photonics technicians. These technicians work closely with engineers and scientists concerning the development, installation, and operation of both gas and solid-state lasers.

Applied Physics
Students of applied physics learn how to use physics to solve practical problems. For this reason, the field is sometimes referred to as the bridge between physics and engineering. Coursework includes computational physics, materials science, thermodynamics, and nanotechnology.

Electrical Engineering
Students of electrical engineering learn how to use physics, electronics, and electromagnetism to design devices that are powered by or produce electricity. Most degree programs in the field start with foundational classes in calculus, physics, and chemistry.

Mechanical Engineering
Students of mechanical engineering learn how to research, design, develop, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, sensors, engines, and machines. These devices serve many industries, including the aerospace, medical, energy, and manufacturing sectors. In addition to coursework in engineering and design, degree programs in the field include classes in mathematics, life sciences, and physical sciences.

Physics is a field that keeps changing as discoveries are made. This means that the field asks at least as many questions as it answers. Students of physics degree programs study matter and energy. They learn about the relationships between the measurable quantities in the universe, which include velocity, electric field, and kinetic energy.

Robotics Engineering
Robotics engineering is focused on designing robots and robotic systems than can perform duties that humans are either unable or prefer not to perform.

Robotics Technology
Degree programs in robotics technology prepare students to work with engineers who design robots and robotic systems than can perform duties that humans are either unable or prefer not to perform.

Skills You’ll Learn

Applying math and science to design devices like telescopes, camera, flat-screen displays, and medical lasers and testing is complex work. It is not surprising, therefore, that optical engineering students gain a diverse transferrable skill set:

  • Active Learning – evolving technology in the field means that optical engineers ‘learn how to learn’ and keep up with the latest information in their field
  • Communication – optical engineering projects are rarely one-person jobs; they call for an ability to interact with others
  • Complex Problem-Solving – the field of optical engineering can present complex challenges and problems
  • Computer-Aided Design – CAD is essential to optical engineering
  • Creativity – thinking out of the box and coming up with innovative approaches to projects is key
  • Critical Thinking – the work of an optical engineer requires the capacity to think logically and analytically
  • Manual Dexterity – the work of an optical engineer is precise work
  • Mathematics and Physics – these are fundamental skills in the field of optical engineering
  • Organization – managing time, planning, and prioritizing are essential for the busy optical engineer
  • Problem-Solving / Design Thinking – in engineering, problem-solving is often referred to as ‘design thinking;’ throughout their education, engineering students are taught to consider a problem from multiple perspectives before arriving at a solution

What Can You Do with an Optical Engineering Degree?

Optical engineering has applications in a wide variety of sectors:

  • Aerospace / Defense – optical headgear for pilots
  • Art Preservation – validating and preserving ancient artworks
  • Construction – using optical metrology, the technology concerning measurements using light
  • Information Technology – future data storage techniques
  • Internet – ultrahigh-capacity optical fiber technologies for the Internet
  • Manufacturing – optical engineering applications involving robotics technology
  • Medicine / Healthcare – hand-held ophthalmic devices for examining patients in remote areas; new technologies for medical imaging such as x-ray optical technology
  • Meteorology – sensors for more accurate weather prediction; creating lasers that can manipulate lightning
  • Solar Energy – systems technologies; enhancing techniques for solar energy collection
  • Space Technology – new lenses for space telescopes; new ways to view the universe
  • Telecommunications and Broadcasting – optical fiber communications

Among the titles that optical engineers may hold in these sectors are:

  • Electro-Optical Engineer
  • Fiber Optic Engineer
  • Imaging Engineer
  • Laser Systems Engineer
  • Machine Vision Engineer
  • Optical Engineering Researcher
  • Optical Manufacturing Engineer
  • Optical Systems Engineer
  • Optics Physicist
  • Opto-Mechanical Engineer
  • Solar Energy Engineer


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