Tips from Jon Toogood on going back to study

Jon Toogood

Jon Toogood, Shihad and The Adults frontman and Toi Rauwhārangi alumnus

Thinking about returning to university after a long gap, or for the first time as an adult student? Toi Rauwhārangi alumnus and Shihad frontman Jon Toogood has been there, done that, and has some advice.

“I remember the day my supervisor, Oli Wilson, told me I’d be writing a 15,000-word thesis,” says Kiwi rock legend Jon Toogood. “I was like, I've never written more than 1000 words before. I couldn't even imagine it.” 

In 2018, the Shihad and Adults frontman completed his Master of Fine Arts at Massey’s College of Creative Arts via distance learning from Melbourne. His project was an album called ‘Haja’ which he recorded with his band The Adults and which fused contemporary New Zealand rock/pop with Aghani-Al-Banat folk music from northern Sudan, where his wife is from.

For Jon, the decision to return to university was primarily a pragmatic one. His wife is a Sudanese national and they wanted to be able to work in the Middle East to be near her family. “Being a rock star from New Zealand was not exactly a great thing to have on your CV in the Middle East. So I thought if I got an American accredited degree I could do a bit of teaching, and our kids could be closer to their grandparents.”

According to Sydney Lash, Senior Academic Advisor at Massey University for the College of Creative Arts, there are many reasons arts practitioners – even highly successful ones like Jon – choose to return to study. “Often our students find it a useful way to reconnect with the arts community and what’s current. They might have been in their industry for 10 years, and they’re feeling a bit jaded. They’re keen to get excited about creating again, develop new skills and deepen their process.”

“Others might be looking to expand their business with a second skill set – for example, an interior designer moving into product design could study the Master of Creative Enterprise. Some students see a degree as an important stepping stone in their career progression, and a way to help them gain credibility and recognition on the international stage.”

On speaking the language of academia

For Jon, who went straight from school to working in a record store, the most intimidating thing about university was the fact he’d never been before. While he was confident that he could deliver on the album, the 15,000 word thesis that would accompany it is what scared him. “I had no problem believing in the music,” he says. The question was, 'Can I articulate this in academic English? Can the son of a couple of working-class cockneys from London actually do this?' And yes, I found out I could. That was a great achievement for me.”

Sydney understands how nervous some mature students can be about starting or returning to study later in life.

“We recommend students spend time getting reacquainted with material from their discipline, perhaps by reading design magazines or music blogs and looking at the newest technology – just to start to understand what’s out there right now. 

“A lot of students think they need to take uni prep courses – but it’s like riding a bike, once you dive in, it all comes back to you. Also, setting aside time to work on personal projects before you study – especially if you haven’t done this as part of your day job – can be a great way to practice time management.”

Sydney also recommends students make time to talk to academic advisors and lecturers. “You don’t need to come to your masters with a fully-formed idea. Sometimes, the process of deciding on a project can be more intuitive. Advisors love talking to potential students – digging into their passions and helping them decide which programme and project is the best fit.”

Juggling study with career and life

According to Sydney, one of the elements of study mature students often underestimate is the time commitment. “You can fit study around career and family. Absolutely. You just have to be realistic about the other commitments in your life. You can only do so much in a week or a month.

Jon says being self-employed meant that he was responsible for scheduling everything. “Fitting it in around two young kids was the hardest thing. It definitely requires concentration and being mentally away from your children and not present. I found that hardest.”

Opening doors and deepening understanding

For Jon, the biggest surprise about studying was how it gave his art a new depth. “I'd never intellectualised my process before. I'd only ever done it instinctively on gut feeling. This was the first time I'd actually gone, 'Why am I doing this? What does this music actually mean?’ 

“When I was doing interviews for the album I actually understood it on a level that I've never considered with my own music. To have that knowledge and be certain about what I'm talking about feels great. Like I'm not winging it.”

Jon’s degree has also opened up new ways of making a living from his art. “I've been teaching at two private universities in Melbourne. It's opened up paths that weren't open to me before.”

“While I was doing my masters, I didn't actually know that it was as much of a big deal as it was. I just thought, 'Oh, this will be great! I might be able to get a teaching gig later on when I'm too old to rock 'n' roll!' It wasn't until I actually completed it that I looked up an MFA on Wikipedia and went, ‘Oh wow! That's pretty good!’. 

For any creatives considering a masters, he has this advice: “When it comes to the arts, if you've got something you think is valid, or that you've got a unique take on, it's a really cool thing to do. It gives the art even more depth and meaning than just doing it. It gives it a purpose.” 

This content was first published on The Big Idea.

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Toi Rauwhārangi
College of Creative Arts
Wellington, Aotearoa