In a rather irregular series on 'advice' to graduate students in this blog, this one is truly special. This article in Inside HigherEd by Paul Gray and David E. Drew gives a coherent set of advice to not only thosee thinking about graduate school, but also those thinking about post-doctoral positions, and about their first faculty jobs. It's all US centric and too general (it addresses people in pretty much every discipline), so take it all in the right spirit -- as a generic guide to what one might expect in academia.
A lot of what the authors say is quite sensible. For example, look at this:
Finish your Ph.D. as early as possible. Don’t feel that you need to create the greatest work that Western Civilization has ever seen. Five years from now the only thing that will matter is whether you finished.
A Ph.D. is a certification of research ability based on a sample of 1. The Ph.D. certifies that you are able to do quality research. ... The people who sign your dissertation are making a large bet on your ability to do it again and again in the future.
A very sobering perspective, but very true, as well.
While reading this article, don't forget the comments. I found at least one of them that had a really interesting idea:
... I have often thought the Ph.D. process was the most INTELLECTUALLY unbearable part of my life. Focus, focus, focus, narrow, narrow, narrow, grind, grind, grind. Prospective academics should have the option of writing a Ph.D. dissertation (Zzzzzzzz) or completing three, more or less related (and be creative in relating them) master’s degrees, all with serious master’s theses, of course.
Writing those papers for publication as a graduate student was quite wonderful — even exciting at times – but I would have much preferred completing a master’s in mathematics (probability), a master’s in physics (“modern” physics), and a master’s in philosophy (history of science). Now, wouldn’t that have been fun? And if education can’t be fun ... well what’s the point?
In addition to producing a generalist, in a science setting, it would also produce a truly interdisciplinary person. I really like this idea; there is a real need for people who can talk multiple languages in science and engineering, because many of the exciting problems are at the interfaces (or the walls) between disciplines. There is really a great value in having a few cats that can negotiate such walls skillfully. Except that individual departments will have to develop an expertise to evaluate candidates of this kind; I don't expect that to happen anytime soon. So, this proposal of multiple masters instead of one long Ph.D, though interesting, is dead on arrival.