A tale circulating by email draws an analogy between doing a PhD and The Lord of the Rings . Here is a shortened version, with apologies to the author.
Senior professor Gandalf suggests that Frodo take on a short project (carrying the Ring to Rivendell). Frodo soon encounters the fear and despair that will haunt his journey - but also makes friends with Aragorn, a postdoc who becomes his adviser when Gandalf is away.
After Frodo has completed the project, Gandalf extends the work, assembling a research group including visiting students Gimli and Legolas. Rapidly, things go wrong. Gandalf disappears and has no more interaction with Frodo until everything is over.
At his first international conference in Lorien, Frodo is interrogated by Galadriel and betrayed by Boromir, who wants credit for the work. Frodo cuts himself off: from now on he will talk only to Sam.
Frodo struggles towards Mount Doom, his burden growing heavier, plagued by Gollum, who carried the Ring but never wrote up. When he submits the Ring to the fire, it is in confusion rather than with confidence.
Once back in the Shire, external examiner Saruman tries to destroy Gandalf's protégé. Frodo passes through this ordeal but discovers that victory has no value for him. Finally, with Gandalf and many others, he joins the brain drain overseas.