Optical Engineers


Education and Training Requirements

High School

While in high school, take physical science, physics, chemistry, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, social studies, English, composition, and computer science classes. Courses in computer-aided design are also helpful. Honors classes in science and mathematics are recommended.

Postsecondary Training

A bachelor's degree in engineering is required to become an optical engineer. Most engineering programs take four or five years to complete. Many students also receive advanced degrees, such as a master's of science degree or a doctorate degree, as they are required for higher level positions.

There are about 120 colleges and universities in the United States and approximately five in Canada that offer classes in optics. Fewer than 20 schools, though, offer programs that grant degrees in optical engineering. Most colleges offer degrees in a related field, such as electrical engineering or physics, with a specialization in optics.

Because each college program is unique, classes in optical engineering may be offered through various departments, such as physics, electrical and computer engineering, electronic and electrical engineering, electronics and photonics imaging, optical engineering, or optical science. Some schools emphasize the engineering aspects of optics, whereas others focus on optical science or the research aspects of optics. Optical science varies from optical engineering in that it is more concerned with studying the properties of light and its interaction with matter than in developing applications that utilize optical technology.

Classes vary based on the type of program, but they generally include intensive laboratory experience and courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, electronics, and geometric and wave optics. Advanced courses may include electro-optics, lasers, optical systems design, infrared systems design, quantum mechanics, polarization, fiber optics communication, and optical tests and measurement.

Some colleges require internships or cooperative work programs during which students work at a related job for one to three semesters. Alternating study with work experience is an excellent way to gain on-the-job experience before graduation and can lead to employment opportunities upon graduation.

A high number of students receive master of science degrees, which generally take two years of additional study beyond a bachelor's degree. Those who plan to work in research generally earn doctorate degrees, which take four years of additional study beyond a bachelor's degree.

Because the types of programs vary, you should thoroughly research and investigate as many colleges as possible. SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, and The Optical Society jointly provide The Optics and Photonics Education Directory, a detailed directory of colleges and universities offering optics courses that describes programs and requirements in depth. Visit https://www.opticseducation.org to access the directory. 

Other Education or Training

SPIE offers continuing education (CE) classes and webinars to help optical engineers keep their skills up to date. Examples of past offerings include topics such as "Basic Optics for Engineers," "Social Media for Scientists," and "Practical Optical System Design." The IEEE Photonics Society and The Optical Society also provide CE workshops, seminars, and classes. Contact these organizations for more information. 

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

All states require engineers to be licensed. There are two levels of licensing for engineers. Professional engineers (PEs) have graduated from an accredited engineering curriculum, have four years of engineering experience, and have passed a written exam. Engineering graduates need not wait until they have four years experience, however, to start the licensure process. Those who pass the Fundamentals of Engineering examination after graduating are called engineers in training (EITs), engineer interns, or intern engineers. The EIT certification usually is valid for 10 years. After acquiring suitable work experience, EITs can take the second examination, the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, to gain full PE licensure. These examinations are offered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. 

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Take as many math and science classes as possible and participate in internships to gain experience in the field.

To become an optical engineer, you need to have a strong foundation in mathematics and physics as well as an inquisitive and analytical mind. You should be good at problem solving, enjoy challenges, and be methodical, precise, and attentive to details. You should be able to work well both individually and with others.