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SPIE Professional April 2009

Career Optimization

Maximize your career options in optics and photonics by carefully considering all the possibilities that your skill set and the field have to offer.

By Richard N. Youngworth

Richard Youngworth on Career Optimization

Many individuals enter the fields of optics and photonics due to a love of these sciences. Other people choose a career in optics because of their interest in the applications of these sciences. Still others enter the field because of a business opportunity, a company need, or just by chance.

Regardless of the reason you are in the field or are considering this as a field, careful consideration of all your available career options is a key factor in having a healthy, productive, and enjoyable career.

Because people change jobs and careers often during their lifetime, it’s important to maximize your future career options and opportunities. Maximizing is accomplished best by recognizing what types of education and skills are needed in various technical areas and understanding your personal strengths and goals.

The transitions up your career ladder become much easier if you have a wide breadth of knowledge about possible career paths and technical areas. This is true even though many people ultimately become specialists in certain areas.

The important consideration in a change of career is to look at the options properly and make the best decision you can. Making good decisions early in your career that keep as many doors open as possible, such as determining the amount and type of education you need, can also aid in job changes in the future.

Step 1: Understand Yourself

The first step in determining your optimal career choice is to understand yourself. What are your interests and goals? What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? Where do you want to live in the world? How do you want to spend your day?

Is money a big driver in your life? Do you desire to further science? There are a plethora of questions that can help to determine your goals and priorities. Many are readily available from online sources and in career guidance texts.

Understanding your capabilities will go a long way in making the best choices. Additionally, recognize that constraints such as nationality, family, geographic considerations, funding opportunities, economic limitations, and timing can impede or facilitate your complete free choice.

Step 2: Consider Job Paths

The second step in optimizing career options is to understand the many different career paths in optics and photonics. Like many other science and industrial fields, optics and photonics offer many paths that are described in the table below. (You can also download the table in PDF format.) 

The types of jobs listed are not necessarily a progression. You may find yourself changing career paths down the road because of personal or professional reasons.

Skilled technicians can become entrepreneurs and later become passionate about teaching. Or they can make so much money on their innovative device or process that they decide to build a venture capital firm to finance other nascent entrepreneurs.

Step 3: Look Into Specialties

The third step involves knowing the many technical specialty areas in optics and photonics. The field is constantly evolving and growing and abundant with opportunities.

Optics and photonics generally includes the fields of materials science, physics, chemistry, metallurgy, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, astronomy, biology, biomedical engineering, and many others.

Optical applications are multifold and continually increasing: medical, astronomy, traditional optics, illumination systems, quantum optics, thin films, laser systems, manufacturing, photography, image processing, defense, devices, displays, telecommunications, materials, and many others.

Often people pick an area of specialty based on an available opportunity, such as a job or university offering. But there are many, many ways to optimize your career.

Discover more about careers in optics and photonics by searching the Internet and investigating topics in professional societies. Such study can go a long way to understanding what is best for you. The fields of optics and photonics are great fields for the 21st century!


Typical Career Paths in Optics

Job  Education Required Job Parameters, Duties, Values, Etc.
 Skilled Laborer High SchoolWorks on specific, often repetitive tasks in manufacturing environments. The understanding of optics and photonics required, such as handling, craftsmanship, and cleanliness, is crucial, yet limited.
 Technician High School; Usually Associate DegreeOperates and repairs optics at practical and hands-on level. Knowledgeable about their part of optics and brings great value and insight to an organization. Most hardware engineers want a skilled technician first and foremost to give them advice, help solve problems, provide expert craftsmanship, and to make things work properly.
 Technical ManagementHigh School; Usually Associate Degree Uses personal skills to manage a productive group of people, protect the company's interests, and balance a budget. Higher level managers have more experience, make key decisions, and are valued for their understanding of the technical and business end of an organization.
 EntrepreneurHigh School Through PhD Has good ideas, technical and business acumen, a willingness to work long hours, and tolerance of risk. The core of a startup company, whether individually or in a group. A successful entrepreneur usually understands business and technical matters or finds a good partner who does.
 BusinessHigh School Through PhD; Often MBA Markets or sells products and services, analyzes business trends, or otherwise works on the "business" side of an organization. Many individuals use their technical background as a stepping stone to business positions.
 Venture CapitalistBachelor's Degree Through PhD; Often MBAUses technical background and/or expertise in finance to assess technical viability of a venture. Expertise is in investing, usually with high risks and rewards. Should understand finances.
University StaffBachelor's or Master's DegreeRuns teaching labs, manages research labs, operates and develops specific equipment, and assists with research work.
EngineerBachelor's Degree to PhDDesigns, develops, and facilitates research and development of products, usually in industry. Bread-and-butter career in optics and photonics. There is a vast variety of hardware, design, theory, research, development, and manufacturing positions for engineers.
Technical WriterBachelor's Degree Minimum; Can Be in Non-Technical FieldWrites documentation, maps out publication strategy for organizations, and makes assessments of books and technical documents for publication. A technical background is an asset for a position in publishing and communications.
TeacherBachelor's Degree MinimumTeaches at many different academic levels, from primary school through college. These individuals have the core goal of teacher others either fundamentals of science, mathematics, and/or physics, or specifically optics or photonics.
ResearcherUsually PhDWorks in industry, government lab, and/or academic setting to do fundamental or applied research. Many professional start as post-doctoral workers and continue as permanent research staff.
ProfessorAlmost always PhD; Often a Post-Doctoral Experience NeededTeaches at the university or college level while balancing research, service, and funding responsibilities. Esteemed faculty take management position at the university level.


Leadership Series

This article is part of the Leadership Series, a collection of online and print articles about transitioning from student to career professional produced by SPIE Student Services and SPIE Professional magazine.

The series is written by a variety of experts who share their knowledge, experiences and practical advice about becoming an effective and successful professional and leader.

To comment on or contribute an article to the series, e-mail spieprofessional@spie.org


Richard N. Youngworth is the director of Optical Engineering at Light Capture Inc., a consumer product development company, and chair of the SPIE Membership Committee. He has a PhD in optics from the University of Rochester and has worked with many different professionals in a variety of roles in his career.


DOI: 10.1117/2.4200904.60

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