As someone who recently completed her masters, and keeps dreaming about going back to school, I am very happy to have read this. I am surrounded by the optimists and pessimists you mention, and have heard all their arguments. I have tried in vain to explain why I want to do a PhD. However, I think the most heartwarming thing for me amongst all these opinions is that I’ve recently met many people who are pursuing, or have recently completed, their PhDs, and they are on the same page as I am. I think for them, and for me, your line “it’s really about being able to spend a couple of more years learning about a topic in the hopes to fulfill some sense of meaning,” encapsulates what the journey really well. And the search for that sense of meaning gives you the freedom and flexibility to choose whether or not you want to stay in academia. Both are absolutely valid life decisions, and the years of rigor can enrich both.
Thanks for sharing!