Facing a room full of college-bound young adults wanting to know about the hot careers in IT used to be daunting. No longer. My advice is, “If you want hot, think photonics.”

What is photonics?

Wikipedia describes photonics as “A research field whose goal is to use light to perform functions that traditionally fell within the typical domain of electronics such as telecommunications, information processing, etc.”

And not just fiber-optic cable runs in a data center, scientists and engineers are moving ever closer to replacing electrons with photons all the way to the processor chip. The advantages of doing so are mind-boggling: 1,000 times faster, improved power efficiency, and reduced cooling demands, to name a few.

Photonics is flying under the radar

Once the students realize photonics is more than fiddling with fiber-optic cables, they ask the inevitable question, “Why haven’t we heard about photonics?” I’ve wondered about that myself.

I first reported on Intel’s photonic research in 2009. Since then, photonics — silicon and otherwise — has dropped off the radar screen. While interviewing Dr. Tom Hausken, senior adviser at The Optical Society (OSA), I asked him why. His thought was since current electronic technology is reaching physical and electrical limitations, companies such as Intel jumped into stealth mode and are leveraging their vast resources to be first to the market with photonic products. Case in point: Even with Intel’s admitted interest in maintaining Moore’s Law, since 2009, the company has invested significant time and money in photonic research and development.

Why photonics may be a good career choice

As to whether photonics is a good career choice, editors from LaserFocusWorld asked Dr. Milton Chang, who has extensive experience in photonics and tech-business entrepreneurship, for his opinion. “As careers go, picking photonics is a good move because photonics is finding applications in just about every industry,” said Chang. “A prerequisite to positioning yourself for opportunities is to become a capable photonics engineer.”

The pay is pretty good as well. According to the International Society of Optics and Photonics’ (SPIE) 2015 Global Salary Report:

  • The median salary for survey respondents is $64,000
  • The highest-paid discipline is aerospace, with a median income of $105,433
  • Besides finances: 85% enjoy their work, 86% find their work meaningful, and 90% respect the work of their peers.

University programs in photonics and optics

The students, starting to show interest, asked, “What kind of degrees are offered, and where are the best schools?”

One source of information is the Optics and Photonics Education Directory, a global listing of degree programs in optics and photonics. However, as of this writing, the site appears to be malfunctioning. It’s not returning university names I know to have optics and or photonics programs.

Other, and likely more valuable, sources of information are The Optical Society’s Student Chapters (there are 360 chapters worldwide). The chapters, managed by students, provide information and a student’s perspective about optics and photonics programs at their particular university.

For an idea of what is available Dr. Chang asked the following universities about their optics and photonics programs.

  • College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL) at the University of Central Florida: In an interview with LaserFocusWorld, Dr. Bahaa Saleh, head of CREOL, said, “The College (CREOL) has 31 faculty members, 55 research scientists, 158 graduate students, and 40 undergraduate students; it graduates about 20-25 PhDs and 20 MS students annually. Last year, we started a new BS program in Photonic Science and Engineering (PSE).”
  • College of Optical Sciences (OSC) at the University of Arizona: Professor Tom Koch, dean of the OSC, told LaserFocusWorld, “We lead the nation’s only NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) on optical communications technology, called CIAN for the Center for Integrated Access Networks. CIAN is a 10-year funded program in research and education in optical fiber communications technology.”
  • The Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester: Professor Xi-Cheng Zhang, director of the institute, mentioned to LaserFocusWorld, “The Institute of Optics has a unique culture and a rich history. Established in 1929, the Institute was the first university to offer optics degrees in the U.S., and the Institute has awarded over 2800 optics degrees since. Our faculty and graduates have started more than 200 optics companies since Prof. Hopkins founded Tropel in Rochester in 1953.”

News that might give the University of Rochester a slight advantage is the US federal government’s decision to locate the Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation (IP-IMI) in Rochester. “This end-to-end integrated photonics manufacturing innovation ‘ecosystem’ in the US will include: integrated design tools for efficient simulation and design of integrated photonic circuits, domestic photonic device fabrication foundry access, automated packaging, assembly and test of integrated photonic circuits, and workforce development.”

A bright future

Universities understand the importance of photonics, and the US government is starting to as well, thanks to prodding from the National Photonics Initiative (NPI).

“The NPI is committed to working with the federal government to reposition the US as a leader in photonics research and development by driving funding and investment in the five areas of photonics critical to maintaining US competitiveness and national security.”

And the IP-IMI seems proof enough of that commitment.