Optics & Photonics Global Salary Report 2021

Salary and wage growth data from over 4,000 optics and photonics workers in 98 countries.
17 February 2021
by Adam Resnick
2021 SPIE Global Salary Report

The Optics and Photonics Global Salary Report provides key information on wages and the workplace across countries, organization types, career stages, gender, and other categories.

Sign into your SPIE account or create a free new account to learn how your pay compares to your colleagues’, how earnings in academia compare to industry, how gender impacts wages, and more. The report offers 16 topical chapters, more than 25 figures and tables, and the option to download a 29-page PDF.



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The Optics and Photonics Global Salary Report provides a reference for employees, students, and managers interested in understanding compensation across the career landscape: How does my pay compare with that of my colleagues? How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected salaries in our community? What can I expect to earn in industry versus academia? The report addresses these questions and a variety of other issues across fourteen topical sections, drawing on original research conducted by SPIE.

SPIE delivers the report each year, free of charge, as part of its mission as a not-for-profit educational society supporting the science and application of light. The report builds on data from over 4,400 individuals in 98 countries1 who shared career information in a short online survey. This is the eleventh annual survey and report, the largest such study in the optics and photonics community.

Unless otherwise noted, all results are based on full-time workers. For a complete list of participant countries and other details on survey methodology, please see Methodology and Endnotes.


Key Findings

The median salary for full-time employees grew 6%, from $75,000 last year to $79,380 this year.2 This rise likely reflects tight labor markets for the highly-skilled engineers and scientists prevalent in our community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has strongly impacted workers, with 74% reporting a moderate or greater effect on their personal, academic, and professional lives, though two-thirds report no COVID-19-related reductions in pay.
Salaries paid in Chinese yuan are up 3% versus last year, but have increased 129% since 2011. Earnings in U. S. dollars were up 6%, while pay in Japanese yen rose 3%. Euro salaries declined 4% and pay in British pounds fell by 10%.
The highest-paid discipline is aerospace, with a median income of $118,825. Aerospace has held the top spot for all eleven years that the survey has been conducted.
Median salaries are 28% higher overall for men than for women, up from 21% in last year’s survey. Differences in pay are lowest during early career stages.
Most full-time workers surveyed (64%) identify as engineers. Within this group, 57% have engineering degrees and are working as engineers, 24% have engineering degrees but are not working as engineers, and 19% work as engineers without having engineering degrees.
The most popular engineering degrees are electrical (25%) and optical (20%), with engineering physics (13%) falling in third place.
The largest proportion of engineers focus their work on optical engineering (40%), followed by electrical (11%).
Startups account for just over 14% of workers at for-profit organizations. These workers earn median salaries of $91,450, versus $105,651 for those at traditional companies.
Almost two-thirds of student respondents (64%) are working towards a PhD, followed by 19% pursuing master’s degrees, and 14% seeking a bachelor’s degree.

Quote 1

Full-time salaries cluster around the median of $79,380, with half of respondents being paid between $42,504 and $130,000. The overall distribution of pay is very wide, with 5th percentile workers earning $8,624 while those at the 95th percentile earn $228,000.

Distribution of Full-time Salaries

Distribution of Full Time Salaries

Most survey respondents were male, full-time workers. Women account for 21% of responses while 19% of participants were students. Small numbers of unemployed and retirees were represented. 

Data Overview

Data Overview

COVID-19 has had a strong impact on many aspects of our community’s personal and professional lives, but it has not had a discernible effect on salaries. Almost three-quarters of workers (74%) report that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a moderate, large, or life-changing effect on their lives. Most commenters mention negative impacts, including the burden of shifting courses online, lack of access to labs, drastic reductions in travel, stressful home situations, and a variety of other effects. A smaller proportion of survey respondents have discovered silver linings during the pandemic, ranging from more time with family to reduced commuting burdens.

Two-thirds of workers say they have not had a COVID-19-related pay reduction, though the remaining one-third of employees have experienced pay freezes, cancellations of bonuses, or other pay reduction measures. Overall median salaries are up 6% this year, suggesting that our community remains well-paid and strongly employed even though many respondents feel that their productivity has suffered. Almost half of full- and part-time employees (46%) say their personal productivity has declined during the pandemic, while 57% feel that the output of their organizations has also dropped.

To what degree has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your personal, academic, or professional life?

COVID-19 affect on your life


Quote 2

COVID-19-related pay reduction measures

COVID-19-related pay reduction measures


COVID-19 impact on personal and organizational productivity

COVID-19 impact on productivity


Most students report that their lab activities have been limited due to the pandemic, and that they have shifted to online courses. Nearly half of students indicate that their social lives or academic motivation have suffered. Employers may take note that 22% of students say that their graduations have been delayed, suggesting at least a partial disruption in the pipeline of job candidates.

In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your life as a student?

COVID-19 affect on your life as a student

Quote 3

Workers in the United States, Switzerland, and Israel enjoy the highest median salaries. Within these high-earning countries, workers at for-profit organizations earn more than their colleagues in academia.

Median salary for full-time workers overall and at for-profit and academic employers

Median Salary by Country


Survey Responses by Region

Survey Responses by Region

Quote 4

Engineers account for about two thirds of the optics and photonics workforce represented in the survey sample. Within this group, most have engineering degrees, while roughly one in five work as engineers but do not have engineering degrees. Electrical engineering degrees are the most popular, followed closely by optical engineering. Combined, these disciplines account for about half of all the engineers in the sample. Chemical engineers have past nuclear engineers for the highest median wages.

64% of full-time workers identify themselves as engineers.
Within this group:

How engineers identify themselves


Quote 5

"What type of engineering degree do you have?"
Median salaries shown

Type of engineering degrees


"What type of engineering is your main focus?"

Engineering focus

Wages grew in both Asian currency groups, with Chinese yuan salaries increasing 3% and Japanese yen up 3%. Euro salaries declined 4%, and pay in US dollars was up 6%. Salaries paid in British pounds declined by 10%. Over the longer term, median salaries have increased in all currency groups except British pounds, with pay in Chinese yuan increasing the most, rising 129% since 2011.3

Change in Median Salaries, 2011–2020, Main Currency Groups

Change in Median Salaries


Growth in Median Salaries, 2011–2020, Main Currency Groups

Growth in Median Salaries

Quote 6

Pay for full-time workers is highest in the United States and North America at almost every career stage, while employees at for-profit organizations earn more than their counterparts in academia.

Median salary by years employed for selected countries

Median Salaries by Years Employed by Country


Median salary by years employed and organization type category

Median Salary by Years Employed by Organization Type


Median salary by years employed and region

Median Salary by Years Employed by Region

Quote 7

North America and Oceania stand out as the regions with the highest salaries.4 A large portion of regional income gaps is explained by the level of economic development of countries within each area.5

Median Salary by Region

Median Salary by Region

Job seekers cited networking as the number one way they found their current jobs. 

“How did you find your original position at your present employer?”

How did you find your job?

Median salaries are greatest in Not-for-profit/ intergovernmental organizations, followed by self-employed or consultant. Universities, colleges, and other research institutes pay the least.6

Median Salary by Employer Type

Median Salary by Employer Type


Median Salary by Region: For-profit, Government/Military, and Academic Employers

Median Salary by Region


Startups account for just over 14% of workers at for-profit organizations. These entrepreneurs earn median salaries of $91,450, versus $105,651 for their colleagues at traditional companies.

Median Salaries at Startup versus Traditional Companies

Median Salary at Startup vs Traditional

Aerospace and semiconductor disciplines enjoy the highest median earnings, at $118,825 and $102,146, respectively. Nanotechnology falls at the opposite end of the spectrum, with a median salary of $54,647.

Median Salary by Primary Discipline

Median Salary by Primary Discipline


The two most important factors driving salary gaps across disciplines are employment sector and country income level. The highest-paying disciplines have much higher representation at for-profit companies: 88% of semiconductor and 66% or aerospace workers are at for-profits.

Country income level has a similar impact on median salaries of optics and photonics disciplines. In the highest-paid category, aerospace, 88% of workers are located in North America or higher-income European countries.

Median Salary by Discipline: For-profit, Government/Military, and Academic Employers

Median Salary by For-Profit, Government, Academic

Quote 8

Security/defense is the highest-paid application area, which is unsurprising given that roughly half of these workers are in aerospace, the highest-paying discipline.

Median Salary by Application Area

Median Salary by Application Area

Quote 9

Women make up 22% of the respondents to the survey, 33% of students, and 18% of full-time workers. Women earn less than men overall, with respective median salaries of $63,099 and $77,994.

Median Salary by Gender and Region

Median Salary by Gender and Region


Quote 10

The largest wage differences are associated with higher-income Asian countries, self-employment, and employment of more than 30 years. Wage gaps for women persist in most demographic subsets of the data, though women earn more than men in a variety of subgroups: Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America and the Caribbean, and three out of four early career stages.

Median Salary by Gender and Years Employed

Median Salary by Gender and Years Employed


Median Salary by Gender and Employer Type

Median Salary by Gender and Employer Type

Other factors that influence salary include job level and job role. Top organizational leaders enjoy the highest salaries, while teaching assistants anchor the bottom of the range.

Median Salary by Job Level

Median Salary by Job Level


Median Salary by Job Level, Selected Countries

Median Salary by Job Level, Selected Countries


Median Salary by Job Role

Median Salary by Job Role

Quote 11

The majority of student respondents are pursuing PhDs.

Degree Being Pursued

Degree Being Pursued

Quote 12

In January of 2021, SPIE sent email survey invitations to a large subset of its global customer database. Response was voluntary and open. An iPad raffle and early access to this report were offered as incentives to encourage participation. Surveys were completed online using Alchemer’s enterprise survey tool. Results were filtered for duplicates and invalid data to yield 4,447 valid responses. Microsoft Excel and SPSS were utilized for summary statistics and related analyses.

For questions, comments, or suggestions, contact report author Adam Resnick at adamr@spie.org.


1. This list includes valid responses from full-time, part-time, unemployed, student, and retiree respondents. United States (1578), India (231), Germany (222), United Kingdom (190), Peoples Republic of China (157), Russia (155), Japan (147), Canada (144), Italy (143), Spain (95), France (92), South Korea (86), Mexico (72), Netherlands (66), Taiwan (62), Brazil (54), Turkey (48), Australia and Switzerland (46), Israel (42), Pakistan (39), Czechia (36), Poland (35), Belgium (29), Colombia and Sweden (28), Malaysia (24), Finland, Ireland, and Singapore (23), Austria, Greece, Portugal, and Ukraine (21), Egypt (20), South Africa (19), Thailand (18), New Zealand (17), Chile (16), Lithuania (15), Denmark and Romania (14), Algeria, Argentina, Indonesia, and Nigeria (12), Latvia and Philippines (8), Bulgaria, Norway, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam (7), Hong Kong SAR, Peru, and Tunisia (6), Hungary (5), Kazakhstan, Kenya, Moldova, and Slovenia (4), Ecuador, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Slovak Republic (3), Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Georgia, Ghana, Iran, Iraq, Liechtenstein, Qatar, Serbia, Sri Lanka, State of Palestine, Tanzania, and Uruguay (2), Armenia, Belarus, Botswana, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Croatia, Cyprus, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Lebanon, Libya, Mongolia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Oman, Panama, Paraguay, Senegal, Tajikistan, and Zambia (1).
2. U.S. dollars are used throughout. Local currencies were converted using January 2021 market exchange rates. Salary figures include total yearly compensation, both base pay and bonuses. Full-time employees are those who indicated working 35 or more hours per week. Unless otherwise noted, all data on pay is drawn from full-time employees.
3. Yearly growth was computed by comparing same-currency results for each year.
4. Oceania is comprised of Australia and New Zealand. North America is comprised of the United States and Canada. Mexico is included in the Latin America and Caribbean category.
5. Europe and Asia are composed of countries spanning a wide range of income levels, even when subdivided into higher- and lower-income groups. For example, the European higher-income category includes Lithuania and Norway, at $19,080 and $82,500 per capita Gross National Income (GNI), respectively, for 2019. European lower-income countries include Russia at $11,260 and Ukraine at $3,370.

Higher- and lower-income subcategories are based on the World Bank’s threshold for high-income countries, $12,536 per capita GNI in 2019. This threshold is used throughout this report when referring to “higher-income” and “lower-income” countries.

For data on per capita GNI, see http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD/countries. For World Bank country income categories, see http://data.worldbank.org/about/country-classifications
6. The category “for-profit” is composed of company/corporation, self-employed/consultant, and fill-in “other” entries that indicate for-profit affiliation. “Academic” is composed of university/college, private lab or research institute, not-for-profit, intergovernmental, other research institute, and open-text “other” entries that indicate academic organizations. “Government/military” is composed of government lab or research institute, civilian government, and military/defense.

Quote 13


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