Profile on: Tatjana Chircop

Maltese graduate Tatjana Chircop on juggling her love of music, English, youth work and research.
Tatjana Chircop
From orchestral player to PhD researcher: Tatjana Chircop
The degree seemed very flexible regarding study time and choice in syllabus content. It suited my lifestyle of pursuing my job and musical career, which I did not want to stop completely, while studying at the same time

After I finished secondary school, in 1988, I embarked on a professional musician career, performing and teaching violin, piano and theory of music. I was engaged as a full-time violinist with the only orchestra in Malta, the Manoel Theatre Orchestra, and taught violin and piano as a part-timer in the government music school. The orchestra was disbanded in 1997 and I joined the newly formed orchestra which substituted it, the Malta National Orchestra. So my career was completely music oriented. I had also won a scholarship somewhere along the way and furthered my musical studies in the Conservatoire De Region in Lyon, France.

It took the authorities two months to structure this new Malta National Orchestra set-up and this transition time was an eye-opener for me. I realised my job as an orchestra musician in a small island like Malta, which could only cater for one orchestra and one music school, depended on a mere political government decision. When politicians decide there are not enough funds, the entertainment industry and culture are always the first to suffer. So I decided to start studying again and did my A levels while still doing a full-time and a part-time job in music. I now wanted a change in my career. I wanted to have a steady job. A job which society, the government etc. could not do without, so I knew I had to get qualified. I started looking for a degree I could take on a part-time basis since my financial situation did not allow me the luxury of leaving my job and studying full time.

I wanted a good job. My definition of a good job includes good salary, good conditions of work, satisfaction and stability. It had to be a job in a sector which was indispensable for society and the education sector was one of them. In Malta at the time, there were only three evening courses offered by the local university, none of which appealed to me. I went to the British Council looking for possibilities in UK universities since UK universities are widely acknowledged as amongst the best in the world. I examined the distance learning programmes and finally chose the degree in English at the University of London. As a university it enjoys an excellent reputation and qualifications from the University of London are not only accredited but also considered as being of a very high standard.

The degree seemed very flexible regarding study time and choice in syllabus content. It suited my lifestyle of pursuing my job and musical career, which I did not want to stop completely, while studying at the same time. Yet the degree programme was extremely structured and regulations, procedures and deadlines were all very clear, which seemed promising.

"The structure of the distance learning degree programme is such that it lets students study at their own pace but this means that one has to be very determined and set your own deadlines. Getting my degree and a better job was the motivation I needed to move on."

The content of the degree was particularly interesting since it covered a wide range of literature – not only literature originally written in English – that, once covered, gives the student a holistic in-depth understanding of the subject, not just a superficial background.

The biggest challenge was being self-disciplined and managing my own studies. The structure of the distance learning degree programme is such that it lets students study at their own pace but this means that one has to be very determined and set your own deadlines. Getting my degree and a better job was the motivation I needed to move on. Slackening is very easy especially when you are working at the same time. There always seems to be something more urgent than studying that needs to be done. And when there isn’t, some distraction or excuse is always readily available. I used to have my own personal notice board with deadlines stuck all over it, in my room. It was the only way! Time management and determination are two vital ingredients for success. I even used to memorise quotations while driving, when time was tight.

Another challenge was getting hold of the textbooks. Finding textbooks in local bookshops was not always possible so I had to order them beforehand, in time to have them when I needed them. This meant that I had to plan quite some time ahead.

The University also offered short seminars in the summer, which I could attend. However, what I found very useful were the examination reports that the University sent every year, with the examiners’ comments on each and every question in the previous year’s examination papers for each and every unit. These are extremely helpful and give a clear picture of what examiners expect.

I would recommend this degree for various reasons. The reputation of the University of London is very good worldwide. Although the programme is a distance learning one, it is pegged at the same level as the tutored degree within the same University of London. This distance learning degree is assessed in the same way and to the same standards as the BA English degree, studied full-time at the University of London. This means that it is a University of London qualification and cannot be considered inferior, simply because it is done through distance learning.

"It might sound crazy, but doing a degree is fun, yes, fun!"

Remember that you will be studying for this degree for a minimum of three years, probably more. This means that you have to make sure that you enjoy the topic. It might sound crazy, but doing a degree is fun, yes, fun! It must entice your curiosity, increase your greed for knowledge. It must be like a hobby you look forward to go home to, not something boring you need to get on with.

On a personal note, the best part was the confirmation that I was capable of achieving it on my own, concurrently with a full-time and part-time job.  Whenever things get too much, I remind myself of that! It gives me confidence knowing I managed it. Another thing that boosts me up is that I started studying again after 10 years of not doing any academic studying. If people get discouraged thinking that they got too rusty to go back to studying, I would say that taking the rust off feels so good! You get so much positive energy from it.

I started working in the Education sector as a facilitator/learning support assistant in a Church School after obtaining the Diploma in English, which is the first part of the degree. Since I was qualified in English, it was possible for the school to adopt a new system: that of having a subject-centred learning support assistant for English. This system worked out well and was developed further in the other core subjects.

I have now moved on to being a lecturer of English as part of the Study Skills Unit in a vocational college, the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology. Within the vocational context, having a degree from a university such as the University of London enables me to draw from a wide range of literature within a curriculum which is highly employment oriented. It enables me to have a different perspective and approach in setting papers and assessment methods.

After the BA in English, I obtained another first degree in Youth and Community Studies, two second degrees (one in Youth and Community Studies and one in Intercultural Eco-Management), and a postgraduate certificate in Vocational Education and Training. I am currently reading for my PhD. My BA in EngIish was the first one I achieved. It was the proof I needed that I could take this route. It also provided the right dose of intellectual stimulation for the greed for knowledge to grow inside me. I have changed my career from a professional musician to a lecturer of English at Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology. Through all this, I have kept up my music performing, so right now I am combining all things I love: music, English, youth work and research.

I plan to finish my PhD in the coming year and hope that better job opportunities open up. I will definitely go on performing music since that is an integral part of me. Having the BA in English, BA and MA in Youth and Community Studies, being qualified in Intercultural Eco-Management as well as Vocational Education and Training and having the Licentiate and Fellowship Diplomas in Music, enables me to combine different areas of research. My artistic side draws upon the richness and beauty of music, art, drama and literature while my critical side draws upon social sciences and pedagogy to question everything surrounding me.

"The degree in English helps me in my PhD research"

One area of research which I find particularly intriguing is cultures and sub-cultures, where young people, music and language form an intrinsic part thereof. One simple example of how these three areas overlap in everyday life is a simple pop song. Music is written to lyrics, and the production is usually targeted towards young people as consumers. Thus the degree in English helps me in my PhD research, in analysing how young Maltese women incorporate music in their everyday life. Moreover, in an island like Malta where Maltese and English are the official languages, the degree in English proves to potential employers that I have a very good command of English which is a prerequisite in any high ranking job in Malta, be it managerial, administrative or educational.