Brittany Jack has been using Slack, the electronic communication and collaboration tool, since she joined Prachee Avasthi’s lab. Jack, who has just completed the first year of her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, uses it to keep Avasthi up to date on her results and ask for advice. She’s also found it helpful for communicating with her labmates: a postdoctoral fellow, a research assistant, and three undergraduate researchers. But it wasn’t until another graduate student, Brae Bigge, started a rotation in the lab this spring that Jack realized how much she could gain from daily communication with trainees at her same career stage. And she realized that Slack could be just the tool to help make that happen—in a big way. Last month, Jack, together with Bigge and fellow grad student and friend Rosalyn Henn, launched Grad Student Slack. It joins a growing list of Slack groups for scientists, including New PI Slack (which Avasthi founded in 2016), Future PI Slack, and Mid-Career PI Slack. “I just wanted to have a community and … camaraderie with graduate students across the world,” Jack says. “We are all going through the same thing, and we can give each other advice.”
The only requirement to join Grad Student Slack is that you are a master’s or Ph.D. student. It is still in its early days, but the group already has some 300 members. Most of the interest is coming from the United States, Canada, Europe, and India, but there is also some from Asia and Australia. So far, members have created more than 40 discussion channels. Some are dedicated to research topics as diverse as cell and molecular biology, ecology, computer science, and the humanities. Others are forums to discuss how to prepare for qualifying exams, write a paper or thesis, mentor undergraduate students, participate in journal clubs, and engage in science communication. There are channels dedicated to professional and personal growth, covering the relationship with your principal investigator (PI), career development, job hunting, and being a scientist parent. A few channels promote networking within specific geographical regions. Yet others will help you get through a bad day or cultivate your mental health.
“It is a space for open and honest discussions about graduate school, both the personal and the professional aspects of it,” says Ankita Patil, who has just finished the third year of her neuroscience Ph.D. program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Patil has already gotten tips on how to tackle graduate school’s workload, contributed to answering questions about attending conferences, and discussed research. “It's also nice that there are plenty of students who actively engage in the conversations. It definitely allows you to voice your opinions or ideas without feeling like they may be singled out or dismissed.”
“Grad Student Slack is able to provide that broader sense of community that I haven’t yet found on campus,” says Joshua Landman, who completed a master’s degree in computer science at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri and will begin a Ph.D. in data science there in August. He didn’t have a cohort during his master’s degree, and as an incoming student it’s not always easy to get to know people, says Landman, who was among the first people to join the Slack group after a friend sent him an invitation. Through Grad Student Slack, “I’ve met other students both within my discipline and from other branches of science, not to mention students at my university that I wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with,” he says. That is particularly important, because “grad school can, in some ways, be isolating.”
As Bryn Sachdeo, a final-year Ph.D. candidate in nutritional biochemistry and physiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, puts it, “I see Grad Student Slack as a peer-support dream team.” Connecting with others this way can help fill the gaps that many students experience—even those with supportive PIs, thesis committees, and broader communities. So far, Sachdeo has exchanged postdoc hunting tips with an astrophysicist and a neuropharmacologist and given feedback on a thesis abstract about Drosophila genetics. She also appreciates that she can interact with the group on her timeline. “If I have an insane schedule and don't have the energy for it, I can choose to not engage at all,” she says. “At the end of the day, it's a voluntary social media platform, so you get out what you put in.”
As the discussions have the potential to delve into sensitive topics, one issue is anonymity—or lack thereof. All members must register with their full names and state their year in graduate school to be verified as graduate students. The founders opted for this policy because they wanted members to feel comfortable being open about their experiences, without the risk of retaliation from more senior researchers or other negative consequences. But members still need to be careful not to reveal anything that they may come to regret later, the founders warn. The group’s code of conduct, which emphasizes respect and courtesy, also invites students who feel too uncomfortable to participate to get in touch with the founders so that they can consider granting anonymity on a case-by-case basis. “We have not crossed that bridge yet,” Jack says, but “we are aware of the fact that [some students] might need to discuss problems with their PI and other people from their lab could be in [the Slack group].”
The founders see Grad Student Slack not only as a service to their community, but also an investment in their own futures. During a Ph.D., “the later years are often the more difficult ones,” says Henn, who is just about to start her second year. “Knowing that later on, we will be able to have this community that is going through the same experiences at the same time will be really beneficial.”
*Correction, 20 June, 10:46 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated that Ankita Patil has just completed the first year of her Ph.D. The story has been corrected to note that she has just finished her third year.