There are many programming languages out there and committing to one of them can be intimidating. The good news is that most programming languages that are relevant today are solid. You can’t go wrong with any of them and they are all worth your time. At the same time, the programming language you pick will strongly influence your work as a PhD student or postdoc and the opportunities you have afterwards. Here I’ll guide you through the things to consider when choosing your first or second programming language.
Which language are others using?
The conformists way
Most programming languages are amazing and the technical differences between them are small and only relevant under special circumstances. More important than the technical details are the community, research field and laboratory you want to join. If you already know which lab you want to join, find out which language is used there. If the lab uses multiple languages try to find out what kind of task you will have, find the people with similar tasks and find out which language they are using. If you don’t know your lab yet but you know the field, try to find out which language dominates that field. You can do so by reading papers, job advertisements or by directly writing to other PhD students and postdocs.
This conformist approach is not satisfying for everyone. I get it. I actually brought a language to my lab that nobody else there was using. More on that later. Most people will benefit greatly from this conformist route. Let me first tell you the many advantages, before I explain why you might benefit from choosing another language. First, you maximize the people that can help while you are learning and while you are engaging with the technical details of your tasks. Second, you will find many solutions ready to use. You will be able to grab scripts and functions from your colleagues and you will be able to move on from programming details to solving your actual task much faster. Third, your colleagues are successfully contributing to the field so it is likely that other people in the same field are using the same programming language. That means your programming experience will help you find a postdoc job if you want to stay in that field.
So why would you want to miss out on those advantages? In short: you don’t. You probably don’t know better than your future colleagues (yet). You don’t want to reinvent the wheel. But there are some other things to consider and sometimes it can pay off to deviate from lab culture. If you do so, this will affect your work. In a nutshell, you will be less productive in the short-term but more productive in the long-term, if you choose your programming language well.
Which languages are used outside academia
Many of us are not looking to stay in academic research. Even if you are committed to academia, this point is worth considering. Things and people can change. It is considered good practice to have a plan B. While many programming languages are used both inside and outside of academia, some labs use programming languages that are nearly worthless in the non-academic job market. Sometimes very specific research requires a niche programming language. Other times a lab was simply unable or unwilling to transition to a more common language.
I recommend making your plan B as concrete as possible. Maybe it doesn’t involve programming at all. Then you should fall back to the conformists way. Otherwise, check your plan B job market for programming languages that are required or advantageous. I will go through some programming languages later and give my opinion on their usage inside and outside academia. However, I cannot give a definitive answer and these job markets evolve rapidly. If you learned programming during your PhD you will be in a great position to pick up another language. You will probably have to learn more than one language anyway. Companies have so called ‘stacks’. A stack is a collection of software (including some programming languages) and people will be hired for “full-stack” or subsets of that stack. A non-academic stack will likely involve at least passing familiarity with more than one programming language. Either way, keep an eye out for labs that use niche programming languages. It might be worthwhile to defy lab culture and choose a more common language.
Performance is less important than you think
Beginners consistently overestimate the importance of performance or speed. I’ve been there. When I started out I though fast computations would be the deciding factor for or against any programming language. It isn’t, because human time is more valuable than computer time. By orders of magnitude. In research, the bottleneck is rarely computational time, it’s almost always human time. Performance only becomes relevant with very computationally intensive projects.
Imagine you are writing a script that will take one minute to run in the end. A 10x decrease in performance (now it takes 10 minutes) is very tolerable, if you get some perks for it. It is now easier to debug, easier to build on and more other people can use it and give you credit for it. If you are writing a simulation project that takes 10 days, a 10x decrease (now it takes 100 days) does not look so attractive anymore. In the real world performance of both scripts and programs is slightly more complicated but the point stands. If you are not sure whether you are in the 1 minute or 10 days category, you should try to figure it our before deciding. Just ask your colleagues and advisers.
With that, I want to move on to some fantastic programming languages. We will look at their strengths and their weaknesses. Always keep in mind the conformists way. Only choose your own language when there are clear advantages. I will briefly discuss which languages are worthwhile to use even if your lab is not on board and which ones are to be avoided even if your lab is working with them. As a disclaimer: I have hands on experience with Python, R and Matlab. For the other languages I either have second hand experience (people in my surrounding work with them) or I did some research about them.
Python and R
Python and R share a chapter because they are both excellent and should be your first choice if there are no other languages established in the lab. If the lab uses either or both, even better! Both are completely free and open source. Python is my personal favorite but I am slightly biased after years of working with it almost daily.
Both Python and R are also heavily used outside of academia. R is consistently ranked as the top required language for data scientists. Python ranks second. A downside of R is that it is specifically designed for statistics and data analysis. This can be an advantage, because as scientists this is the biggest part of our job when we program. However, Python is a complete all-rounder. It can do data analysis but it can also do web development, game development and everything else you can think of. Web development is also possible with R, but it centrally revolves around data analysis and visualization. I guess I’m trying to say, Python would be better for your private coin collecting website (minor upside).
Some communities slightly favor Python, others favor R. Astronomy for example really likes Python. Single cell sequencing on the other hand prefers R. Check with your field and colleagues. Finally, both languages are well documented and have massive communities behind them. This makes it much more likely that someone already solved an issue you are trying to google. In summary, any second you spend learning Python or R is well worth it.
MATLAB is developed by MathWorks and it is specifically designed for science and engineering. Unlike Python and R, it is neither free nor open source. If your lab pays for a license, the heavy price tag might not bother you. The language itself is more similar to Python than R (many of Python’s numerical computation capabilities were developed with MATLAB users in mind). A nice upside is that the language comes with a very strong graphical user interface and debugging capabilities. This can be very helpful. Unfortunately, MATLAB is much less popular outside of academia than Python and R. Especially smaller companies and early start-ups are unwilling to pay for MATLAB when there are free equivalents. Overall, even academics seem to be slowly transitioning away from MATLAB. However, I would not advise strictly against MATLAB if it is very popular in your field of research or the lab you want to join. Especially since Python and MATLAB are similar enough that transitioning is easy, once you learned MATLAB. I would only advise against it if you have concrete plans to leave academia for data science.
Julia is being traded as the future Python. For now it has a smaller community but it was specifically designed to keep the advantages of Python while improving performance. I currently don’t recommend Julia, unless you have some computationally intensive projects or you anticipate such projects in your professional future. The more people use a language, the higher the chance that even specialized tasks are already implemented by someone else. Julia is not yet widely adopted. If your lab uses Julia, I recommend rolling with it.
Igor Pro by WaveMetrics is a commercial software and programming language. Like MATLAB, it comes with a rather rich graphical user interface. It is the first programming language I actively discourage. Even if you feel like spending money, you are probably better off with MATLAB. Igor Pro is even less popular outside of academia than MATLAB.
When I started my master thesis, the established language for my main task (intracellular electrophysiology) was Igor Pro. I decided against using it, because I had never heard about it before, the graphical user interface did not look very appealing and I had some Python experience from small hobby projects. So I decided to do the analysis myself with Python. The consequence of that was that I was extremely slow in the beginning. Had I just done it with Igor Pro, I could have taken the scripts that were already used in the lab and could have used them with minimal learning effort. Instead I had to reinvent the wheel and learn Python at the same time. This made me extremely inefficient in the short term.
In the long term it was the best choice I made during my masters, because in the long term it made me more efficient. More than that, I was able to take on new tasks that would have been nearly impossible with Igor Pro. I started to get into biophysical neuronal network simulations. Python has several packages for that. I’m not aware of any such Packages for Igor Pro. That being said, you or your colleagues might not be willing to lose short term efficiency, especially if you don’t care for programming and just want to get the job done. If you enter a lab where Igor Pro is being used, roll with it to get things done more quickly.
Most programming languages are fantastic
Committing to a programming language is difficult. Luckily, all relevant programming languages today are amazing. They all get the job done and are well worth your time (especially the ones on top of this list). And this brings me to my take-home message. Don’t worry about the technical differences between Python, R and MATLAB. Especially don’t worry about performance. Your scientific field and laboratory are much more important factors for your choice. Isolating yourself comes with a price. I also hope I made clear why and when that price is worth it. It might give you long term advantages. Finally, the best thing you can do today is to start programming and to stop worrying.