President's Letter

William Arnold reflects on the 2013 SPIE salary survey.

01 October 2013
William Arnold

As my term draws to a close and I write my last letter (already?!), I reflect on issues near and dear to most Society members. How are we doing in employment? Are we satisfied with our jobs? How well are we paid compared to our peers?

How do women’s salaries compare to men’s? How do people in industry fare compared to those in government or in academia? How do workers in different parts of the world compare in salary and hours worked?

In April, SPIE closed the most comprehensive international survey ever of the optics and photonics community (drawn from over 6500 valid responses from 103 countries). The SPIE Professional article, “Job satisfaction high, SPIE survey says,” covers the basic findings. See for the full report.

Happy with their jobs in optics

It is a great pleasure to see so many people happy with their jobs and careers as I do know many people outside my professional sphere for whom work is a chore, only a job, something one does only for money and medical benefits.

Of course, we have problems – some of us are between jobs, some dislike the steady grind for research results, the struggle for tenure, for promotion, for new customers or even retaining existing customers. But arguably these are the good problems to have compared with unemployment or dead-end jobs.

Eighty percent of our survey’s respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I love my work and I feel fortunate to get paid for doing it.” Also notable is the very high percentage of workers who respect the work of their peers.

More progress needed in gender equality

IMAGE OF salary survey booklet One thing that is not so great to read about is the gender inequality. When I was a graduate student in physics, women made up only 4% of my class. In physics, this percentage is growing to the 20% range according to data I saw last year from AIP.

As a Society, SPIE has 18% women in membership and 25% in governance. In recent years, we have had three women as president (Malgorzata Kujawinska, María Yzuel, and Katarina Svanberg). So, in membership and governance there is some small progress over time, but there remains no real reason why it shouldn’t be equal.

Likewise for compensation. Sadly, according to the survey, the median salary of men working in optics and photonics is 36% more than that for women.

The wage premium for men varies from 9% to 140%, depending on region.

On average, our work weeks are longer than the mythical 40 hours. Workers in Asia report greater than 50 hours is the norm. But I think we all know that jobs in optics and photonics are not usually by the time clock.

The salary breakdown by employer is very fascinating. The small group who are self-employed do best ($120K per year).

Aerospace and semiconductor-related disciplines both report median salaries of more than $100,000 per year. At the other end of the spectrum, those who work for universities and colleges earn less than $60,000 per year.

We're building something useful

When I was younger and hadn’t yet decided on my career, I read an interesting book by Studs Terkel, a famous reporter and interviewer for a Chicago radio station, entitled Working. It is a collection of interviews Terkel did with various people about their jobs (The book’s subtitle was “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.”).

One interview I remember was with a stone mason. This person seemed the most satisfied of the group as he actually built useful things that lasted.

The basic finding of the SPIE Optics and Photonics Global Salary Report, that most people who work in optics and photonics love their jobs and feel fortunate to have them, is a great sign we are building something useful and lasting for the future. ?

William H. Arnold
2013 SPIE President

Recent News
Sign in to read the full article
Create a free SPIE account to get access to
premium articles and original research
Forgot your username?