In the Photonics Careers Project, we are studying the early careers of technicians, engineers, and researchers to better understand the transition from school to jobs. With perspectives drawn from employees and managers, PhD students and their supervisors, we are learning about key math, physics, technical and communication skills that are essential for success. We are doing foundational research that supports stronger bridges between school and work and between the industry advocates for workforce development and the academic communities focused on education research. The Photonics Careers Project will provide additional research-based clarity that informs national discussion and policy around STEM workforce preparation.

Why do education research on the optics and photonics workforce in Rochester?

  • With the physical sciences, photonics is rich in basic research and technological applications in health and medicine, advanced manufacturing, defense and national security, energy, communications, and advanced manufacturing.
  • Rochester is home to over 30 companies and leading higher-education institutions. Rochester was the birthplace of the Optical Society of America, and remains a national hub in photonics. RIT is a leader in imaging science, remote sensing, and micro-optoelectronics, and solar energy. The University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics is the largest optics degree granting program in the Country. And Monroe Community College’s Optical Technology program is highly valued by the Rochester industry.

Is there a local skills gap?

1. The rhetoric of “skills gaps” abounds in popular discussions about the relationship between higher education and the workforce. Our initial goal is to identify key skills needed for success in the workplace, providing feedback to local higher-ed, students seeking employment, and providing us a better understanding of upward mobility within the local photonics sector.

2. We are going beyond many studies by including:

  • Multiple perspectives: employers and employees
  • Graduate school and industry
  • A range of levels of positions (Associates to PhD)

Uniting higher education, discipline-based education research, and workforce development

  • Adapting research on improving students’ learning in order to study what makes creative, successful, and satisfied STEM workers.
  • Focus on core aspect of typical undergraduate STEM programs: scientific content, mathematics, and communication.
  • Too many discussions of skills in the STEM workplace treat skills such as “advanced math” as a single broad concept. But education research reveals there is no generic skill such as “advanced math,” but rather there are an array of cognitive processes and contextual elements that go into using advanced math to solve scientific problems. This research will more accurately reveal how STEM skills are used in a day-to-day workplace setting, providing necessary information for education researchers wanting to connect their research more closely to the workplace.