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Optics/Optical Sciences

Program Description

Just the Facts

Optics/Optical Sciences. A program that focuses on the scientific study of light energy, including its structure, properties and behavior under different conditions. Includes instruction in wave theory, wave mechanics, electromagnetic theory, physical optics, geometric optics, quantum theory of light, photon detecting, laser theory, wall and beam properties, chaotic light, non-linear optics, harmonic generation, optical systems theory, and applications to engineering problems.

This program is available in these options:

  • Associate degree
  • Bachelor's degree
  • Graduate Certificate
  • Master's degree
  • Doctoral degree

High School Courses

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Additional Information

Bar code scanners. Photocopiers. CD players. The list of products that optics students learn to design goes on and on.

"It's difficult to get through a day in modern times without using or encountering technology that is based in optics," says Dennis Hall, former director of the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. He is now a physics professor at Vanderbilt University.

Hall says there are three paths you can choose to study optics. One option is to find a school with a physics department that offers courses in optics. Another route is to choose an electrical engineering program that allows you to specialize in optics. A few schools even have a special optics program.

So how do you know which route to choose?

"The course of study is different, but there are a lot of overlaps," says Patrick Li Kam Wa, a professor of optics at the University of Central Florida. "In fact, depending on how the student chooses the options, the students enrolled in the different programs may end up taking almost the same courses."

Hall points out that the optics field has two career tracks: a science-oriented one and an application-oriented one.

"That means that a student interested in fundamental science can, in the right department, get a physics degree with more than the usual number of optics courses," he says.

"Likewise, a student interested in engineering can, in the right department, get an electrical engineering degree with more than the usual number of optics courses. But on the other hand, a student with both fundamental and applied interests, or a student who has not yet made up his or her mind about fundamental versus applied, can pursue an education in a comprehensive program in optics that provides a background in both."

You'll need to be good at math. You'll also have to be interested in science or engineering.

"As a subject, optics is a blend of physics, engineering and mathematics," says Hall. "It would be fair to say that students need the same set of skills to succeed in the optics major that are necessary to succeed in either the physics major or the electrical engineering major."

Michael Giles teaches optics in New Mexico State University's electrical and computer engineering program. He looks for excellence in math, English and science in applicants.

"Concentrate on the basic math courses, especially algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Make sure you know these subjects very well. Calculus is also good, but it can be studied at the university level," he says.

"Physics and chemistry are also good preparatory classes. English is extremely important," he adds. "Computer skills are also essential. Learn to write computer programs that will solve your favorite math equations."


Occupational Outlook Handbook
For more information related to this field of study, see: Physicists and Astronomers

For more information related to this field of study, see: Electrical and Electronics Engineers

International Directory of Degree Programs in Optics
List of programs worldwide

An online photonics resource


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