Nothing in it about penis-shaped helicopters, but this Anthony Grafton piece about going to graduate school is pretty good-- the kind of combination of encouragement about the inherent (if quirky) rewards of academic apprenticeship, combined with some (maybe too gentle) warnings about the downside. I particularly like this little "then-and-now" gem:
In the ’60s, as universities expanded around the country and the world, job offers strewed the desks of bright Ph.D. candidates like autumn leaves in Vallombrosa. [ed: This is the kind of thing that separates writers like Tony from us mere mortals. I have no idea what it means, but I feel more erudite just reading that reference.] One friend of mine opened an envelope that had been buried under detritus on his desk and discovered that he’d been offered a job two years before and never even answered.
Not very likely to happen these days, but my father (who got his Ph.D. in 1970, and his first tenure-track job three of four years before) confirms that yes, that's what it was like back then.
While Tony advises readers that they shouldn't "jump [into grad school] before you find out exactly what lies below," though I wonder if it's really possible to "find out" what it's like, or what it'll do for (or to) you with anything approaching exactitude.
Of course you should talk to lots of people, but for most prospective students that universe will only include current students and faculty. The students who will be alternately glowing about grad school and their prospects, or will try to give you the scary "real" story. The faculty will be pretty useless as advisors about the realities of grad school: life looks very different at the head of the seminar table.
On the face of it, talking to students and faculty is a pretty logical decision, but the problem is this: odds are, you're not going to get a Ph.D. and then be a professor at the kind of university you aspire to attend. Further, while they're helpful about the day-to-day reality of school, graduate students are going to be useless sources about the long-term effects of going to graduate school-- either in economic or career terms, or in psychological terms. At the same time, other people who could be very informative-- people who've been ABD for 15 years; people who finished their Ph.D.s and then went to Wall Street, the World Bank, or think tanks; students who dropped out before their orals-- are much harder to track down.
So there's an inverse relationship between the availability of experts to consult, and the likelihood that their expertise is actually going to be useful in your own life.
When I was an undergrad (I was one of those nerdy kids who went straight from college to grad school-- actually, I started taking graduate classes as a sophomore), I never thought about talking to people who'd almost finished the programs I was looking at but dropped out, or people who didn't become academics. It turns out, of course, that it would have been far more useful for me to talk to Ph.D.s who'd gone into business. But those people aren't as easy to find as the ones in the faculty lounge or TA offices.
This is actually an example of a bigger problem that people and organizations face when thinking about the future: we tend to confine our research to cases that are relatively easy to find, and look only at successes (successful cases, organizations, or people), and not at failures. Getting a handle on that space-- or at least a more realistic appreciation of the likelihood of the unexpected happening-- is one of the toughest things you can do as a forecaster, or parent, or human. After all, success is what we want, and it's easy to understand; failure is what we want to avoid, and people fail for all sorts of unpredictable reasons. Success if what a strategy or good decision or first-rate school can bring you; failure is what'll happen if you don't get those things. We don't think explore the possibility that we could get those things, execute properly, and still not reach our goal; but that happens all the time. Success, we think, is comprehensible and predictable (and not largely determined by the economic state of universities and how expansive faculty hiring is allowed to be in any given season); failure is random, or something that'll happen to other people. But in reality, we're probably going to end up one of those other people. We're better off if we know that in advance.
And if we know that the definition of "failure" is sometimes as arbitrary as the forces that determine whether it happens to us or not. I can testify that it's possible to have an interesting intellectual life without being an academic (though having a library card does help). As Grafton notes,
Even if you don’t finish, or finish and don’t wind up as a professor, the skills you learn in grad school can be of value in a range of other venues. Some of my most successful former students work as scholars, teachers or writers outside the academy. But as you might expect, few follow this path without some bitterness. And no wonder. A fair number of professors treat students who leave the academy, even after experiencing terrible difficulties, as renegades and wash their hands of them. Be prepared.
Be prepared, indeed.