Advice on starting a career in optics

Hello all,

I am trying to start a career in optics and am looking for advice on what things I can do to get into this industry.

I completed my undergrad degree in physics/chemistry in '19. During my undergrad I was focused on physical chemistry and all of my projects/research were based on instrumentation and analytical chemistry. I did complete one optics related project where I built a GUI for a Newport scanning monochromator in LabVIEW and used it to produce spectra of gas lamps and iodine vapor and performed an analysis of the iodine spectrum to derive spectroscopic parameters. Post graduation I worked for an analytical lab performing various lab tasks and helping to develop some data management software in python.

I made the decision to change tracks and work towards a career in optics, aiming to work in the augmented/virtual reality industry. I am wrapping up the first year of a MS program in physics focusing in optics and am beginning to look for entry level jobs, but feel that I do not meet the general requirements for most that I see. Although I have a fair amount of hands on lab experience (for someone with an undergrad degree), none of it has been at an optics bench. With the past year of my MS being completely remote due to the pandemic, I did not get to spend any time in the lab for my optics and laser courses and I feel that this is a huge hinderance.

Do you have any advice for someone in my position that will help me start a career in optics?

Thank you for taking the time to read/respond.

Congrats on finishing up the first year of your MS! First year of grad school is always fun.

In my experience, the best thing you can do is talk to the professors and see what industry connections they have. If you know you want to go into AR/VR, this helps focus who you should talk to.

I know that FB does an internship first, and then transitions to full time, so that could work in your favor. There are many other companies in the PNW of the US working with optics that would have applications in AR/VR like autonomous vehicles, so don’t narrow your focus too much.

You may also find it beneficial to talk to smaller companies where your more diverse skill set is applicable and gain practical experience with optics, and then make a career move into the AR/VR space.

I generally think @Isaac had good advice for where to get jobs. My question for you however is what exactly do you want to do with respect to AR/VR?

You mentioned you lacked hands of optical bench experience, but this is only needed if you intend to do much optical bench work. For example, I know that various AR/VR groups hired and need optical designers, ranging from sequential and non-sequentail optical design to photonics type analysis. Thus, if you are trying to be more of a designer, if may benefit you more to get software experience (or, in the case of photonics to read as many papers as you can about photonic design in AR/VR and learn that material well).

If you are trying to do more assembly or metrology work with respect to AR/VR, I agree you unfortunately have been out of luck with the pandemic for optical bench experience. However, I just want to really emphasize Isaac’s point, which is you should totally email not only AR/VR groups (both academic and industry), but any group that does assembly and or metrology and explain you are seeking hands on experience. This may put you in a position of having to accept slightly lower pay to start with, while you learn those skills (if it is industry), but there really is no better way to get bench experience than just doing it.

I know the University of Arizona’s Wyannt College of Optics used to host Practial Optics Workshops, effectively hands on optics workshops (see here:; they are postponed it seems during the pandemic). I am sure you could however reach out to professors affiliated with that for questions about how to gain some of that experience, and in the mean time you may very well expand your network and find a connection to AR/VR.

All of this is potentially not super helpful; so I will close with this (which I hope is helpful). You clearly are a motivated person and have worked to develop an optics background. That alone is the biggest lead to staring a career in optics. I’ve found that if you email professors or industry and express a sincere desire to enter a field, a willingness to learn, and a minor background, you will get a lot of requests to hire you! Couple that with a narrowing definition of your goal (optical design, assembly/metrology, or photonics), and that should help allow you to really beef up on that focused background, allowing you to go into any interview or discussion being well informed on your topic.

Finally, I do have some personal contacts in the AR/VR field. I will ask them their perspective to see what they have to say.

Thank you very much for the advice. I currently live in the PNW and am happy to know there is a lot of optics and AR/VR happening in this area. That was actually one of the final motives for me to make this transition, I would prefer to stay in this area and it’s reassuring to be surrounded by Microsoft/FB/Apple/Google. I would love to apply to the numerous FB internships at their Reality Labs in Redmond WA but they seem very strict on the PhD students/graduates only policy stated on all their internship postings.

I will definitely reach out to my optics and laser physics professors to see if they have recommendations. I am currently looking at entry level test engineer positions that seem somewhat common at optics companies in my area. I think this would be a good way to get general hardware experience, as I am lacking in that area. I have been trying to find smaller companies whose work is optics related but have not had too much luck.

Again, thank you very much for the advice. I look forward to learning from this community site!

Thank you very much for this advice, it means a great deal to me. Your first question is a good one, and one that I am still trying to figure out myself. I am very interested in the design of the lenses (freeform, waveguides, metamaterial) that are being developed for AR technology and am also extremely intrigued by the metrology work required to characterize them. I aim to get familiar with optical design software ASAP. It has been suggested to study some of the designs explained in Smith’s MOE text and model them in OSLO’s student edition. I will definitely take yours and Isaac’s advice and not restrict myself to solely AR/VR based companies.

I am doing everything I can to bring myself up to speed on all things optics as fast as possible. It’s a bit overwhelming, but also very exciting. The school I am attending doesn’t focus heavily on optics research but there are a few professors whose work is related to my interests. I will be contacting them to inquire about possible opportunities.

Thank you again. I am very happy to have been shown this community and look forward to learning a lot from here.