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From VMBO to a Ph.D. Degree

In school, grades serve as the currency determining one's success. However, in real life, it's one's skills, competencies, and the ability to apply them to create value that dictate financial compensation and success (depending, of course, on one's definition of success). Yet, 33% of high school students are placed at an educational level below their capabilities. Transitioning from VMBO to earning my Ph.D. seemed improbable when considering my early grades. While achieving the highest academic degree is a notable accomplishment, I'm sharing a more detailed version of my journey in hopes of shifting the focus towards nurturing competencies rather than merely judging individuals by their grades. This article is fueled by the numerous reactions I received from individuals who saw themselves in my story, which I shared on LinkedIn upon receiving my Ph.D.

Starting with VMBO-TL (vocational level), many view it as a less rigorous academic track. It's often regarded as a pathway for those who might find HAVO (applied sciences) too demanding. I moved from VMBO-TL to VWO (pre-university level) in my first three years in high school. Yet, I barely made it through VWO, scraping by with a grade of 5.5 (akin to a 'D' in the U.S. grading system, the bare minimum to pass). However, I achieved a 9 on my profile assignment in Chemistry.

Despite my grades not being a clear indicator of future academic prowess, I embarked on a Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences, then pursued a Master's in Drug Innovation at Utrecht University. I graduated cum laude from my Master of Science program, with an average grade of 8.8 – comparable to an A or 4.0 GPA in the US grading system – and a Honors distinction.

What was the catalyst? I discovered a genuine passion: molecular cardiology research, with the goal of devising new treatments for cardiovascular patients.

During my master's studies, I was presented with a Ph.D. opportunity, which I wholeheartedly embraced. Over the span of three years, my Ph.D. endeavors yielded 5+ first-author publications and a patent. The crowning achievement? Securing a Ph.D. in regenerative medicine, a domain on the edge of transforming healthcare by mending damaged tissues and organs.

I can't claim these achievements as solely my own. They were realized through the steadfast support of exceptional mentors, invaluable colleagues, caring friends, and family.

Looking back on a 17-year academic journey, from my first day in high school to the day I received my Ph.D., I value the seven lessons my parents taught me more than any academic achievement:

  1. You don’t get what you deserve, but what you negotiate.

  2. Other people’s opinions of you don't have to become your reality.

  3. Knowledge isn't power; applied knowledge is.

  4. You cannot win if you are afraid to fail.

  5. Stay curious; every day is a learning opportunity.

  6. Your surroundings play a pivotal role; surround yourself with positive influences.

  7. When faced with tough decisions, remember that each choice only adds to your experiences.

  8. The education system often judges everyone by the same yardstick. However, each of us possesses unique talents. It's up to you to discover how to harness them to contribute to society.

A failing grade isn't the end of the world. I believe it's high time we move beyond labels like 'highly educated' or 'less educated' and start appreciating individuals for their unique talents and contributions.

The advice to 'go to school, get a job, and work until you can enjoy retirement' was relevant decades ago. However, with advancements in artificial intelligence, life sciences, and technology, specific jobs will become obsolete in 10 or 20 years.

Focus on developing skills that align with your natural abilities. For me, that was conducting research that fits within the academic trajectory. For you, it might be something different.

Once you find the right fit, determine how to leverage your skills to provide value to society. "Those who can provide the most value to society will receive the equivalent financial contribution in return." – Alex Hormozi

The best advice I've received for those in the early stages of their career is to focus on working to learn instead of working to earn. What you learn early in your career can benefit you as you progress, rather than staying in a job you dislike with limited growth potential.

Key Takeaway:

Chart your own course and stay true to your vision for the future. Don't let societal benchmarks, such as grades, dictate your worth. Embrace continuous learning and growth. To truly succeed, you must be open to the possibility of failure.


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