2017 SPIE Salary Survey

The new report provides in-depth information for optics and photonics professionals.

01 April 2017
Karen Thomas

Cover of 2017 Optics and Photonics Global Salary ReportThe 2017 SPIE Optics & Photonics Global Salary Report offers new insights into the careers and job satisfaction of optics and photonics professionals.

This year’s report presents in-depth, detailed information on salaries in individual countries by career stage, organization type, and job level. For example, median salaries by career stage are reported for the first time for Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Taiwan. Also new to the report is a breakdown by engineers/non-engineers and startup/non-startup companies.

Aerospace is still the highest-paid discipline with a median income of $110,000, according to the report. This field has held the top spot for all seven years that the survey has been conducted.

Job satisfaction remains high in optics and photonics fields, with women and men reporting similar levels of fulfillment in most categories: 96% enjoy their work, 95% find their work meaningful, and 93% feel that their work is respected by their peers.

“A solid grounding in optics and photonics has provided many of us opportunities to rewarding careers,” commented SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs. “This will continue to be the case in this century of the photon as the impact of our technologies on quality and quantity of life continues its inexorable progress.”

The largest difference of opinion in the survey concerns employee views on fairness of pay and promotion. The report shows that 71% of women feel they are paid fairly, versus 79% of men. Nearly equal percentages of women (82%) and men (83%) would recommend their job to a child or a friend.

The largest such international study of the photonics industry, the report is being mailed to all SPIE members with the April 2017 print issue of SPIE Professional


Women made up 21% of the respondents to the survey, 29% of students, and 17% of full-time workers. With few exceptions, women still earn less than men overall, with respective median salaries of $50,500 and $68,953.

Wage gaps persist in most demographic subsets of the data, although gaps are lower or non-existent in early-career stages, and are reversed in Oceania, Latin American, and the Caribbean.

When statistics are broken down by employer type alone, women in civilian government and military/defense earn more than men but less than men in all other employer types.

Statistics gathered by geography alone, show that women in Oceania and Latin America/Caribbean earn more than men, but men earn more than women in all other geographic areas.

The largest wage differences between men and women are associated with North American and higher-income Asian countries, employment at not-for-profit organizations, and employment of 26-30 years.

North America and Oceania stand out as the regions with the highest salaries, with median earnings well above other areas. North American median incomes are 86% greater than higher-income Asian countries and more than double higher-income European countries.

Noting that human talent is globally dispersed, Arthurs said “the distribution of brains does not correlate with the geographic disparity in salaries” obvious in a table on page 2 of the report. “We can wish it otherwise, but the reality is that the highest salaries are associated with the geographies where one finds our technology yielding the most value added,” he said.

“To maximize the rewards from intellectual stimulation that are so important to many of us, and to be well rewarded financially, we must be open to change, perhaps to the challenges and social disruption of migration,” Arthurs said.

“As invention and entrepreneurship proliferate in our field, salary differentials may diminish, but in this regard as in much else, hope is not a strategy. Learning from the success of Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore in investing in the complete innovation infrastructure, from education to global product revenues, is a better approach for countries without legacy technology-based economies,” he said.

Arthurs warned that unless established leading economies “pay attention to the investment in education and research, future versions of this salary survey will have ranking changes.”

  • The median salary for full-time employees is $65,000, up slightly from $62,443 last year.
  • Entry-level pay for PhDs is highest in Switzerland, with a median salary of $81,970. The United States, Australia, and Germany follow, with respective salaries of $79,750, $61,562 and $53,465.
  • 32% of workers in higher-income Asian countries work 50 or more hours per week. 21% of Ukrainian workers report working 55 or more hours per week, the largest percentage of any country.
  • Startups account for just over 15% of workers at for-profit organizations. They earn median salaries of $70,000, versus $95,473 for those at traditional companies.
  • More than half of student respondents (59%) are working towards a PhD, followed by 25% pursuing master’s degrees, and 11% seeking a bachelor’s degree.

image for SPIE Optics and Photonics Salary ReportThe optics and photonics community is composed of workers and students on every continent, engaged in disciplines ranging from aerospace to semiconductor to biotechnology. The SPIE Optics & Photonics Global Salary Report provides the community with up-to-date information on pay, job satisfaction, and other important workplace topics.

A key goal of the report is to provide a reference for employees, students, and managers interested in understanding compensation across the career landscape: How does my pay compare with that of my colleagues? What is a typical mid-career salary in my country? What can I expect to earn in industry versus academia?

SPIE delivers the report each year, free of charge, as part of its mission as a non-profit educational society supporting the science and application of light. The report builds on data provided by nearly 10,000 individuals in 103 countries who shared career information in a short online survey.

This is the seventh annual survey and report, the largest such study in the optics and photonics community. This year's report greatly increases detailed information on salaries in individual countries by career stage, organization type, and job level. 

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