There are many different engineering careers you can go into, but optical engineering may be one of the most fascinating. Whether you choose to learn on your own or pursue an engineering degree, learning optical engineering can be one of the best decisions for your career.
What Is Optical Engineering?
If you have ever used a cell phone camera, you have used a product of optical engineering. This branch of engineering creates industry-standard optical instruments such as camera lenses, corrective eyewear, medical endoscopes, microscopes, and telescopes.
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Optical engineers design the various optical components of devices. By using a combination of knowledge in the properties of light, physics, and chemistry, optical engineers can create real-world products that help us function in day-to-day life.
What Is Optical Engineering Used For?
Optical engineering is used for quite a few things, though its primary goal is to create quality optical devices. However, there is more to creating these products than meets the eye.
- Designing Optical Systems. Optical engineers use this field of engineering to design entire optical systems from the actual optical devices to the parts they interact with.
- Determining Required Specifications. Optical engineers also help determine what specifications are required for a variety of optical devices. They use these determinations to calibrate and fix issues with these devices.
- Designing and Developing Circuitry. The circuitry in optical devices is extremely important in how they function. While this could be designed by someone with an electrical engineering degree, most opt for optical engineering to ensure the job is done the exact way it needs to be for the optical device to work.
- Designing and Developing Inspection Instruments. Even though creating the actual optical devices is the fun part of the job, it is important to perform maintenance. Optical engineering is often used to design and develop instruments that inspect optical devices for any potential flaws.
Types of Optics
As an optical engineer, you will need to be well-versed in the world of optics. While there is a lot more to learn than these three primary types of optics, each is an important place to start.
Physical optics, as you can guess, focuses on the physical aspect of optics. It can be a bit difficult to simplify, but this type of optics revolves around the wave properties of light. By understanding the wave properties, you can better understand how light moves and bends.
Quantum optics is a bit more specific than physical optics. Rather than focusing solely on light waves, quantum optics is the branch that focuses on individual particles of light known as photons. This type of optics is essentially taking the theories and practices of quantum mechanics and applying them to photons and light.
Finally, we have geometrical optics. This type of optics focuses more on optical instruments and devices. When using geometrical optics, you will likely be using such instruments to detect, measure, and even manipulate light. This aids in the research and design of new optical devices.
Learning Optical Engineering
Learning optical engineering is no small task. But, if you want to take advantage of STEM education, this is a great way to do it. By enrolling in various STEM-related courses and eventually, optical engineering courses, you can teach yourself how to be an optical engineer.
Even if classes aren’t really your thing, this guide provides plenty of other resources. From books you can read to online resources and certificates you can earn, there are plenty of ways to learn all you need to know about optical engineering.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Optical Engineering?
To become an optical engineer, you will more than likely need to earn a college degree. This means, on average, it takes students at least four years to learn optical engineering. Those who have chosen to pursue a graduate degree would argue it takes upwards of six to eight years to truly master the subject.
However, if you are choosing to learn for fun or a personal project rather than a job, you can teach yourself quite a bit about the subject. Depending on what type of learner you are, you can teach yourself all you need to know in a few months or a few years. It really depends on your learning path.
How to Learn Optical Engineering: Step-by-Step
Though there are many different routes you can take to learn optical engineering, for those who are planning to become optical engineers, we suggest following these steps. This is also a good place to start if you are unsure of where to begin.
- Take Physics and Math Classes in High School. Even if you aren’t planning on earning an online math degree, enrolling in as many math and physics classes as possible in high school is a game-changer for future optical engineers. This gives you a better background in the area, providing you with a helpful head start.
- Apply to Good Optical Engineering Colleges. It can be difficult to determine which college is best for you to go to, so be sure to do your research. There are many good colleges for optical engineering, and it is important to find the best one for you by determining your budget, how prestigious you want the school to be, and where you want to study.
- Enroll in a BS in Optical Engineering Program. If your school offers it, we highly recommend enrolling in a Bachelor of Science in Optical Engineering program. These programs focus more heavily on science than others do, which benefits you as a future engineer as it gives you a more rounded education.
- Try to Enroll in a Co-Op Program. Not all schools offer co-op programs, but it is important to find out if yours does. These programs will help pair you with a company to intern or work at upon graduation, which saves you a lot of hassle when getting ready to join the work world.
- Consider Higher Education. Earning a BS in Optical Engineering is a huge feat, but in this competitive field, you should consider higher education. Having a master of science or even a PhD in the field would be a game-changer when it comes to future jobs.
The Best Optical Engineering Courses and Training
Whether you choose to enroll in a college degree program or not, taking a few of these courses can be a great learning aid. Whether you prefer in-person, online, or even free courses, we have you covered with some of our favorites.
Best In-Person Optical Engineering Classes
In-person classes are fantastic options for those who learn best when able to work with their hands, have one-on-one time with instructors, or simply struggle to teach themselves from home. These in-person courses are a couple of our top picks.
Bachelor of Science in Optical Engineering Program
- Provider: Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology- Terre Haute, IN
- Length: 194 credit hours
- Prerequisites: None
The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana is one of the best colleges for optical engineering. You can either enroll in their 194 credit-hour BS in Optical Engineering program, or you choose to enroll in a class or two from the curriculum. Either way, you are guaranteed a quality education.
Optical Engineering Undergraduate Program
- Provider: University of Rochester- Rochester, NY
- Length: 4 years
- Prerequisites: None
In Rochester, New York, you can enroll in some of the courses available through the University of Rochester’s optical engineering undergraduate program. If you are interested in the program, you can enroll as a full-time student and earn a degree in four years, or you can pick and choose which classes suit you best.
Best Online Optical Engineering Courses
For those who prefer to work at their own pace, from the comfort of their own homes, online courses may be the way to go. These are two of our favorite online courses, but there are hundreds to choose from.
Basic Optics for Engineers
- Provider: SPIE
- Length: 8 hours
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: $280 – $560
SPIE specializes in optics and photonics education, and this course is no different. By enrolling in this 8-hour Basic Optics for Engineers course, you can learn the basics of optics and how they apply to engineering projects. This course costs $280 if you become a student member or $560 for a non-member.
Optical Design and Instrumentation I
- Provider: The University of Arizona
- Length: 1 college semester
- Prerequisites: 2 physics courses
The University of Arizona is one of the best engineering colleges in the United States, so it is no surprise that this online Optical Design and Instrumentation I class is on our list. While this is considered part of a graduate program, it can be taken by anyone who has completed the required physics classes prior.
Best Free Optical Engineering Courses
Everyone loves free things, especially when it comes to education. For those learning optical engineering as a hobby or to cut back on college tuition, these free courses are the best place to start.
Design of High-Performance Optical Systems
- Provider: Coursera
- Length: 23 hours
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: Free
Coursera offers an awesome Design of High-Performance Optical Systems course as part of a partnership with the University of Colorado in Boulder. This course is one of three required for the university’s optical engineering specialization, and you receive a certificate of completion after finishing the course.
Quantum Optics I: Single Photons
- Provider: Coursera
- Length: 33 hours
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: Free
For a more specific course to help you learn about optics, this Quantum Optics I course teaches the basics needed to understand quantum optics. Through Coursera and Ecole Polytechnique, this course provides a college-level education in approximately 33 hours- totally free of charge.
Best Optical Engineering Books
Reading books about optical engineering may seem like a difficult way to learn, but it can actually be one of the most effective. Whether you are a bookworm or not, you are sure to enjoy reading our favorite optical engineering books.
Optics for Dummies, Galen C Duree Jr
Another installment of the classic For Dummies series, Galen C Duree Jr’s Optics for Dummies is the perfect guide for both beginners and experts in the field of optics. While this guide doesn’t focus specifically on optical engineering, it will give you the best understanding of optics you can get from a book, which is a major part of learning optical engineering.
Optical Systems Engineering, Keith Kasunic
Keith Kasunic’s Optical Systems Engineering focuses specifically on how to design and develop the systems used in optical engineering. The author of this book assumes readers have a basic foundational education in optical engineering and builds on it to help readers understand how optical engineering systems can be used in the real world and everyday life.
Optical Engineering Science, Stephen Rolt
In Stephen Rolt’s Optical Engineering Science, readers will be able to dive deep into the science and theories of optical engineering. Rather than emphasizing the real-world application of optical engineering, Rolt focuses on how it is done and how optics and optical engineering work.
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Optical Engineering Certifications
Earning an optical engineering certificate is a great way to boost your college degree or even replace one when searching for jobs. These two are some of the best optical engineering certificates you can earn.
Optical Engineering Certificate
Through the prestigious University of California at Irvine, you can enroll in an optical engineering certificate program. This program can be completed online or in-person, and only requires you to complete five courses.
There is also an option to earn an optical instrument design certificate, which is ideal for more specific career goals. For those feeling extra ambitious, it is possible to earn both certificates and become qualified for even more jobs.
Optical Science and Engineering Certificate
The University of Colorado Boulder not only offers fantastic courses for engineers but also makes them as easy to access as possible. This certificate program in optical science and engineering can be completed entirely online and after taking just three classes.
Through the University of Colorado Boulder, you can also earn a Semiconductor Photonics Certificate, which can make you more hireable for any optical engineering job. Or, as we suggested with the previous school, you can easily complete both certificate programs and make yourself irresistible to employers.
Best Online Optical Engineering Resources
Especially with optical engineering being such a complex field of study, having access to a plethora of online resources is important. These are some of our favorite websites for everything optical engineering.
SPIE Digital Library
The SPIE Digital Library is a fantastic resource offering all the journals, papers, presentations, and ebooks imaginable about optical engineering. Whether you are searching for the answer to a specific question or simply reading for fun, SPIE Digital Library has you covered.
European Optical Society (EOS)
The European Optical Society is one of most revered institutions for optics and optical engineering. On their website, you can join a community of people with similar jobs and interests and keep up-to-date with the latest optical engineering news. You can also browse the various journal publications to study and brush up on your knowledge of optical engineering.
IEEE Photonics Society
The IEEE Photonics Society is a group dedicated to quantum physics, optical engineering, and other similar fields of science. Their website is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in quantum engineering, as it provides information about how technology is being used in the modern world, education for those wanting to get into this field, and opportunities to attend conferences relating to these subjects.
Should You Study Optical Engineering?
While optical engineering, or any type of engineering, can be challenging to begin to learn and understand, it is a subject that becomes easier with time. We won’t lie and say you’ll learn it in a month, but you may be surprised at how easily you can pick up on the subject material and concepts.
Learning optical engineering is a fantastic way to prepare you for careers in quantum engineering, physics, and engineering in general. It may be a specialized field, but it does have its uses in other areas of study. Since optical engineering often coincides with other types of engineering, it is a great subject to have a bit of knowledge of as an engineer.
So, whether you are thinking about learning optical engineering for a career as an optical engineer, a different job, or even for your enjoyment, we say to go for it.
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