I'm late to the party since I have been trying to decide what I think and if I could write something that would make sense. Anyway, what struck me when I read your question is that it asks partly what I asked myself a while back when looking for jobs after my post doc. "What is my PhD worth/ why would I be 'better' at this job than someone who hasn't gotten one?"
Wonka wrote:One of the things I'm fighting is a serious feeling of failure. I enjoy science and discoveries and asking questions and doing different things in my day, namely all the practical aspects of bench work. But the aspects of science as a career, sweating the grant applications, the occasional cronyism I witness, those things make my skin itch. I've told myself for a few years that this is just in this immediate environment and it's not all like this, but I'm not sure I believe it anymore.
I think you can have a career in science without a PhD, as a bench scientist/technican. In Academia, not as a PI no... as a higher technician/senior lab personal - sure. Will people treat you as they would a PhD? Maybe, possibly not. Then again, it's apples and oranges since it depends on if you take in the whole picture, half of it or what you want. For example, I love discoveries and science, but don't like writing grants. That would make a choice of going into PI world foolish (or at least a bit hard) although I have the choice as a PhD (do I have enough publication though? that is also part of it all). Does that mean that I can't have a science career? No (but Academia turned much harder, if not impossible).
I love my PhD time (mostly in hindsight) since it gives me a stamp of "I took on a task, dived into a question, suffered and finished it all and wrote it up
". For all intent and purposes, I do think a person who worked in a lab with me without having that could've gotten a similar experience, and gotten the same scientific knowledge, but not the final stamp of approval... and I think that is partly what people see when they look at the degree, it's not as interesting exactly which subfield of biology you did your thesis on, you did it in area X... But that's my view of all these titles/academia degrees - they don't really say much about how much you know, they might say more about the fact that you did them and finished them.
Some companies don't care about them at all (I have several friends who dropped out of engeneering before their degree was done, got a job and are high in the organisation. Granted, the ones who hadn't climbed enough when the first economical dip came, got let lose and went back to obtain said degree.) and then as previously mentioned in this thread, there are places nowadays who wants you to have both a PhD and a post doc although really, that may not be necessary... but "if we have that experience, it will look good and we need to distinguish between the applicants
Maybe this didn't help at all, but at least you got some ramblings from a PhD with post doc experience who is now working as a tech (the only one in the group with a graduate degree) so I'm not sure what to make of that.... but I think the time as a graduate student is grueling and not really safe (either in time or money) so I'm not sure I would go that route unless I knew I really wanted the degree. Otherwise I think there are more options to do science by the bench and maybe find another type of degree to go with it. To a point, experience and time in a lab as a lab manager for example, would count a lot compared to a fresh PhD student with limited lab and no managing experience. It's all depending on what kind of jobs there are....imho.
"One never notices what has been done, one can only see what remains to be done" Marie Curie