Photonics Engineer

Photonics engineers develop the tools and technical applications of light. The science of photonics is the generation, transmission, modulation and detection of light.

Advances in technology and communications move at the speed of light. Much of our communications system is based on transmitting information, in the form of light, through optical fibres. Photonics engineers are concerned with devising and improving sources of light and the optical fibres through which the light travels. They need to have a thorough knowledge of physics, engineering and optics.

Photonics engineers, for example, help to save lives by designing laser tools that are used in delicate eye and heart surgeries; develop better fibre optics to transmit large amounts of data around the world in the blink of an eye; design LED-based car headlights that are stylish, energy-efficient and bright enough for driving safely; dazzle and entertain crowds by developing specialised lasers for rock concerts and art installations.

In the first few years of the 21st century, the Digital Age, one can send and receive e-mail from around the world in a few minutes. Surgeons routinely perform laser surgery that results in less bleeding and faster healing time. The Air Force defends the skies using electronics-based aircraft that can almost fly themselves. The connection in all of these is photonics technology!

Photonics engineers can investigate a variety of areas:

  • Design, test and modify laser equipment and components for manufacturing, defence, telecommunications and medicine. Lasers can be made from semiconductors or from gas.
  • Improve the quality and design of fibre optics technology.
  • Devise methods for reducing the cost of manufacturing lasers, optical fibres, and fibre-optics.

As the need increases for humans to share information faster using precision equipment, photonics engineers can expect to be at the forefront of cutting-edge technology.

Photonics engineers should learn how to use systems for computer-assisted design and drafting (or CADD) and computer-assisted manufacturing (or CAM). The laser and fibre-optics field is advancing rapidly, and engineers in this profession must continually update their knowledge to maintain their expertise by taking classes.

Most photonics engineers begin as assistants to experienced engineers. As they gain experience, they may become supervisors or specialise in a particular aspect of laser or fibre-optics technology. Some engineers advance to management positions. A few engineers with the necessary education can become research directors or principal engineers. Engineers may also advance by starting their own consulting or manufacturing companies.

Most photonics engineers work in office buildings, laboratories, or industrial plants. Some engineers travel extensively to plants or work sites abroad.

Many engineers work normal office hours but, at times, deadlines or design standards may bring extra pressure to a job, requiring engineers to work longer hours.

Careers in lasers and photonics are what we call “emerging careers.” Advances in the field are creating new job opportunities in a variety of industries, which may fuel extensive job growth.

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

National Senior Certificate meeting the requirements for a degree or diploma course.

Each institution has its own entry requirements.


What to Study

Degree: Bachelor’s degree in a field such as electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, engineering science, or engineering physics – all universities.

Some colleges and universities offer degrees in optics technology or photonics.

Diploma: Photonics is listed as a scarce skill. There is a need for qualified and skilled people in photonics and related fields. This fast-growing industry is in need of trained technicians.

Postgraduate: Certain positions in the laser and fibre-optics profession, such as optical designer, require an advanced degree. A master’s degree will take one or two years of additional full-time study. It generally takes about four years of study after earning a bachelor’s degree to receive a PhD, which is required to teach at the university level in this field as well as for industrial research and development positions.


Some of the jobs in the field of lasers, photonics, and holography include:

  • industrial laser companies
  • medical laser offices
  • companies that design and run laser light shows
  • laser manufacturing company
  • optical engineering company
  • fibre-optic packaging company
  • optics/laser manufacturing company.

Further Information

Photonics Division of the South African Institute of Physics

Programmes by Study Institutions

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