There is an intense discussion over at ISP that started as an idea on the over-supply of Physics PhDs and has heated over whether Physics (in general Science) as a career represents a bright, happy future.
I thought I should throw in one (the one related to the path towards the PhD degree) of my two cents, the next will come later. So, here it is:
Science is indeed a difficult career, it takes a lot of time and effort but in principle it will provide a great deal of satisfaction whenever a "discovery" is made. Science is not for everyone, I personally think that anyone can learn science but only a few can actually do science. If you are in the latter group and want to learn about science, go for an undergraduate degree. As a physics graduate, I can tell you that I learned a lot during my undergraduate and when I finished I was as prepared (I think even better prepared) than my engineer friends.
But it was at that point that I noticed a big difference between those friends and my physics friends. They didn't want to go to grad school, at least not for an engineering degree, and I wanted to go. I had the idea that pursuing a PhD would give me the opportunity of learning a lot more about the things I thought were cool, do research while in grad school and at the end do independent research. On top of all of these, I thought a PhD degree would provide greater job security since there would not be many people capable of replacing me. With these in mind, I embarked in this grad school journey.
After a few years into studies, I have found out that it is not what I thought it would be. It turns out that chances are I will not end up doing research as I thought if I go for an industry job (many of my older friends that already obtained their degrees have engineering jobs that could've probably performed without the PhD), and if I decide to go for academia, it can easily add up to 10 years (5-6 PhD, 3-4 postdoc) before I get my first real job. It can take another 5-6 to get tenure and then have maximum job security.
It feels worse when you include some professors' attitude towards grad students. Grad students are considered cheap (sometimes free) labor, with long hours, no or little personal life and very, very low pay. And grad students are the ones that actually get the results in the lab (sure, professors come up with the ideas and money, but it is the student who does at least 90% of the lab work). In basic words, students are like slaves and the more you have and the senior they are the best. This presents a conflict of interests in my opinion. Universities (through professors) will demand more and more money to support grad students, and if you get professors to talk about your professional future they will all (ok, not all, maybe Okham, Doug and IP are more understanding) promise you the chance of a fairly paid, nice research job when they know it's probably not true.
I have witnessed professors that purposely keep students from graduating to get more results out of them with no consideration for the student's future, and I have seen many professors who keep their students as long as they can as TAs, demanding the same results as if the student were full time RA.
Science is a tough career, not so much for the science itself but for all the other aspects that make a science career. Many of those aspects happening even before you get to look for a job.
Is the (bleak) hope of a tenure-track position enough to still go through all that? Maybe, I can't tell for sure yet. What I do know is that I would have appreciated it if someone had told me before finishing my undergrad degree that grad school and academic life would be tough in respects I could have not imagined then. If they had told me that I would most likely end up working as an engineer and that even in that position I would make less than the guy that actually went to engineering school.
I also know that I would not call it a science career if it ended with grad school.
5 days ago