Update added here
OK, that’s a little extreme, but over the Thanksgiving weekend, I came across some advice which essentially amounted to biologists should learn how to code. I’m not sure that’s great advice. Since I’m in the genomics bidness, that probably sounds weird, but one of the few advantages of being…not young is that you have seen multiple rounds of similar advice.
It used to be (yoostabee!) that people were told to: learn PCR and sequencing, statistics, and advanced mathematics, to which we can now add coding. There’s nothing wrong with learning to code–if you’re more than a diletantte, you would have other career options if you want or need to leave biology (but you do have to have some credentials, a semester of intro Python isn’t going to cut it). But what we’ve seen with those other supposed must-have skills is they are now either outsourced or so ‘productionized’ that you don’t really need to learn those things. Mind you, it’s always good to understand how things work–and knowing things can come in handy–but you can probably do very good biology without knowing these things.
When it comes to biologically-relevant coding, we’re already starting to see the beginnings of publicly available pipelines (e.g., Galaxy) that don’t really require much more than some very basic file manipulation and knowing how to use that system, neither of which qualify as coding (any more than being an Excel maven means you’re good at coding). My hunch, and I could be wrong, is that in five to ten years, much of what constitutes the daily work of bioinformatics will be much more standardized in the same way most researchers order a Qiagen kit for DNA extraction instead of doing it old school.
What we do need are biologists who know biology, and you can never know too much biology. Again, if you’re thinking about career backups, there’s nothing wrong with becoming an expert (or close to one) in a given skill set (e.g., statistics, coding), and it also will be a good thing as a biologist. But I don’t think coding will be the must-have skill set a few years from now (except for those who develop new tools).
Put this another way: if coding is still a really good skill for biologists to have a decade from now, then we might have done something very wrong.
We do need some people who are good at these things, but you can’t learn everything (at some point, the goal of graduate school is to graduate).