Currently, I'm just waiting for interview invitations from the places I applied to. So I did it, I applied to doctoral programs despite people in general being discouraging and not understanding why I want a PhD.
For context, I recently finished my undergraduate program in biomedical engineering in a top university in Colombia. The academic culture here is VERY different from that of the US (I can compare the two because I've been involved in academic life in both places). In Colombia, most people stop at undergraduate level education (if they get any). If they choose to go further, most of them do "specializations", which are 6-12 months programs that are valid only in Colombia. Others, however, go for a masters degree, which is very costly and of course time-consuming. I guess many of the same worries some people in academia have in the US can be seen in Colombia as well at this level: "Will I get a job if I have only professional titles instead of experience?", "Will I be overqualified?", "When will I start making money if I keep investing even what I don't have in more education?", "Will there be a job market for me?", and the list goes on. All of this is just for the masters level! Now imagine you want to pursue a PhD. If you want to do this in Colombia, then you're probably gonna have to pay a lot of money (yes, most doctoral positions in Colombia are not paid, you are the one who pays and it's not cheap). On top of that, the job market really is discouraging, you will likely be overqualified and end up having to leave the country. Besides, in Colombia, people use to think that you cannot get a PhD without a masters degree (I know professors here who don't accept PhD students unless they have a masters degree), which makes the academia lifepath even more expensive and time-consuming than I personally think it needs to be. All of this being said, just imagine the look on the faces of people when I was just finishing my undergraduate program and told them that I was applying to doctoral programs in the US. "But you don't have a masters degree", "Are you ready to make a decision that will affect the rest of your life?", "Isn't that too expensive?", "What if you get in and then you don't like it?", "Are you sure you're qualified for that?", and the list goes on...
I had a very close friend who seemed to really enjoy going against my desire of pursuing a PhD and doing so just after finishing my undergraduate degree. This friend used to say that doing a masters first was better because that would give you more experience and increase your chances of being accepted into a PhD program. This friend also used to say that it was pointless applying to top-level doctoral programs because we're just recent undergrads from a third-world country and we just don't have the set of skills or the mindset to get into any of those miserably competitive programs. Another thing this friend used to talk about a lot was how expensive just applying was: GRE is over $200, TOEFL is also over $200, then you have to ask for transcripts which are around $70, then sending everything is a lot of money as well, and on top of that you have to pay the application fees; this friend also used to say that if you get an interview it's better if you personally go there, which means international airplane tickets and, of course, a Visa if you don't already have one. I won't deny that it is indeed very expensive applying to graduate school abroad as an international student. But that was honestly my problem, not my friend's, and not anyone else's.
Sadly, friends were not the only ones that seemed to try to discourage me (I like to think that people did this unconsciously). One time, my parents told me that they were not happy with my decision of applying to more than 1 doctoral program. They didn't understand why I was applying to places that were not the University of Kentucky, my "safe" place, where I did a 1-year internship. Fortunately, I worked as a tutor and my city's Town Hall funded me...and I also got help from an amazing American friend who blindly believed in me, so my parents didn't have to spend a cent on my applications. Money can really be a straitjacket, or better yet the lack of it. Thankfully, I managed.
Not everything was discouragement though! People whose opinions I really cared about encouraged me to apply to doctoral programs ASAP! This includes my research advisors in the US and in Colombia, I'm talking about PI's, postdocs, professors or group leaders. Logically, I chose to listen to them, which is partly the reason why I ended up applying.
As for the pointlessness of applying to top-level doctoral programs, I think that was pure BS (sorry). I decided to apply to the Mayo Clinic's PhD Program. I recently got an email inviting me to interview weekend in February. Yes, I am personally traveling to the US for all interviews, thanks to my city's Town Hall who also chose to believe in me instead of being like "No way, PhD's are too expensive and not for you".
I'm sure I'll struggle with some things, but so what, I'm choosing a PhD not because it's easy. Graduate school is where I wanna be and nothing's gonna stop me. I think discouragement only encouraged me even more