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Photonics Degrees Are on the Rise

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2002
Stuart Hutson

Not long ago, a photonics degree meant a diploma in physics or electrical engineering and the realization that other training would have to be acquired on the job. But that has changed as universities around the world institute photonics programs designed to provide students with the cross-disciplinary background the industry requires.

Three years ago, fewer than 10 universities offered widely known academic programs under the title of photonics. Today more than 40 offer or plan to offer programs ranging from photonics-based specializations under traditional degrees to doctorates in the field. At least 10 of these universities have incorporated a specialized department or center for photonics.

"The motivation for these programs is a larger marketplace, with a greater specification in needs," said Duncan Moore, senior science adviser for the Optical Society of America. Even in the present economic climate, there is still a need for manpower. And that need will increase in the future, he said.

Universities largely designed the programs to fill the gap between traditional academic regimens and other knowledge areas required by the industry, while keeping a focus on application.

The programs often include engineering, telecommunications, devices and materials science courses seldom found in a standard physics curriculum, as well as the wave physics, quantum mechanics, and highly mathematical physics courses seldom found in an electrical engineering curriculum.

"It seems that as we increasingly specialize in different areas of research, people who come out of a broader background of research that prepares them for a specialization are going to be the more valuable employees," said Carter Kersh, Nortel Networks' institute manager for Duke University in Durham, N.C. Nortel is based in Paignton, UK.

While few dispute that photonics will be a hot job market for many years to come, some in the industry anticipate that the need will be greater for technicians with lower-level degrees such as an associate or a bachelor's.

"I'm finding it easier and easier to hire designers with a graduate degree. I could probably find someone within a couple of weeks if I pushed," said Jack Elliot, operations manager at Zygo in Tucson, Ariz. "It would take me months to find a technician ... someone who could actually work out on the production floor."

Inherent in almost all the programs is a strong partnership with photonics-based businesses. Some industrial affiliate programs allow companies to advise academic partners on changes to the curriculum and to provide feedback on how hired students are performing. Often, students will do on-campus research for the companies, an arrangement that provides low-cost research for companies and industry experience for the students.

"These programs train students to work in the 'real world,' where the emphasis is on applications as apposed to 'science for the sake of science,' as is found with many traditional degrees," said Ed Kanoby, vice president and chief technical officer at Sciperio Inc. in Stillwater, Okla. "They learn how to communicate in a scientific language outside of their own discipline, work in teams and view how their research fits into a broad body of work -- all while keeping the perspective of a very specific user community in mind."

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