How to Use MATLAB: An Overview

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn about how to use MATLAB, including what MATLAB is, how you can learn it, and the various careers where you can use MATLAB.

[Featured image] An engineer uses MATLAB on her computer to make her work more efficient.

Short for matrix laboratory, the MATLAB programming language and its technical computing environment offer several tools for a wide range of tasks. Many industries and professions benefit from implementing this language to complete tasks ranging from algorithm development to data visualization, application development, and more, as MATLAB makes solving technical computing problems easier and more efficient than with other programming languages.

Read more: What Is MATLAB? Overview and FAQ

How to use MATLAB

MATLAB is a technical computing programming language and environment that you can use for small and large-scale projects. The MATLAB environment offers a range of tools that simplify the process of developing applications, debugging programs, and importing and exporting data, where you can integrate programming, computation, and visualization all in one place. You can even use MATLAB for software development projects, with MATLAB allowing you to develop user-friendly graphical user interfaces. MATLAB supports object-oriented programming, offers complex data structures and computational algorithms, and instantaneous visualizations based on your results. 

Basic features of MATLAB

The standard features of MATLAB include its programming language, graphic system, computational library, application program interface (API), and work environment. 

MATLAB is a high-level programming language. High-level languages are less difficult to understand since they're generally similar to human language. The graphic system in MATLAB enables you to create customizable two-dimensional and three-dimensional visualizations. The computational functions offered by MATLAB range as well, from basic algorithms to more complex functions. MATLAB’s API also supports integration with other programming languages, including Java, C, and Perl. All this is possible thanks to MATLAB’s work environment, where you have access to various tools and infrastructure. 

Is MATLAB easy for beginners?

MATLAB is beginner-friendly and typically isn’t too difficult to learn. As mentioned, MATLAB is a high-level language so the syntax is fairly straightforward and uses language very similar to standard English. For context, Python is another example of a high-level programming language and is widely considered a great option for those new to programming. The overall interface of MATLAB is also user-friendly, with features that allow you to complete work quicker than you would using alternative methods.

How to learn MATLAB

You have many options when choosing how to learn MATLAB, whether it be part of your studies while earning a degree or utilizing different resources you can find online. If you choose to earn a degree in an area such as engineering, mathematics, or sciences, your coursework will likely include MATLAB. MathWorks, the creator of MATLAB, offers free online tutorials where you can work through interactive courses, observe coding samples, and learn more about MATLAB's capabilities. For example, you can find tutorials to learn the fundamentals or learn how to solve machine-learning classification problems.

You can also use books from MathWorks to help you learn more about a wide range of MATLAB subjects and the role MATLAB can play within different industries, including chemistry, data science, physics, image processing, robotics, control systems, neural networks, and much more.

Another feature for helping to grow your skills in MATLAB is MATLAB Central. MATLAB Central is an online community where you can have open discussions with other users, read blogs, and exchange files. Depending on what you use MATLAB for, you can find a MATLAB Central community relevant to your work. For example, you can explore communities revolving around distance learning and how you can use MATLAB for remote learning or GitHub communities where you have the opportunity to find functioning code that could be useful to your projects.

Why is MATLAB important?

MATLAB is especially important to engineers and scientists as it allows them to express mathematics. It is designed specifically for engineering and scientific workflows while integrating well with other computing environments. Traditionally, testing and experimentation have occurred in labs. However, experimenting has largely transitioned to simulations, where computation tools such as MATLAB are beneficial for developing conclusions from experimental data.

Who uses MATLAB?

Beyond engineering, you can pursue several careers where MATLAB is a valuable skill. Research scientists, data scientists, data analysts, and machine learning professionals all benefit from having MATLAB as part of their repertoire. Along with the range of careers, MATLAB is making an impact across many industries. The industries most regularly utilizing MATLAB include information technology, academia, energy, financial services, and automotive. However, MATLAB's impact reaches even further and is also seen in pharmaceutics, control systems, and biology, amongst others. 

Read more: Your Guide to Data Science Careers (+ How to Get Started)

Pros and cons of using MATLAB

Using MATLAB will provide you with a multitude of benefits; however, some challenges exist as well. Here’s a look at MATLAB’s pros and cons.


  • MATLAB enables you to create both two and three-dimensional graphics.

  • MATLAB is beginner-friendly, so you can learn it even if you’re new to programming.

  • Algorithm development is faster in MATLAB in comparison to many other common programming languages.

  • MATLAB’s environment offers several tools and specialized libraries for code generation and building applications.

  • MATLAB interfaces with other programming languages, including Python, C#, Java, and C++.

Read more: C# vs. Java: Which to Choose?


  • In MATLAB, multiple functions cannot be created in a single file, so you must create separate files for each function.

  • Many of the commands in MATLAB are MATLAB-specific, so your programming experience in other languages will not directly translate.

  • MATLAB use typically isn’t free. To use MATLAB for your business or personal use, you or your organization must pay for MATLAB licensing. However, with limited storage and product access, you can access MATLAB for twenty hours per month cost-free with the basic version MATLAB Online.

Getting started with Coursera

Continue learning more about MATLAB by exploring convenient online learning opportunities on Coursera. For example, Introduction to Programming with MATLAB from Vanderbilt University is designed to help you learn fundamental concepts, including control structures and how to handle different data types within MATLAB.

Practical Data Science with MATLAB from MathWorks is another option. With MATLAB, you can create machine learning models and reports and analyze large data sets.

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