Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

Career Lifeline

Alumni peer mentoring reshapes lives
December 21, 2009

Naomi Zirkind had five degrees from MIT and eight children at home in Morristown, NJ, when, one day in 2004, she realized she needed help. After 11 years out of the full-time workforce, she was under financial pressure to restart her career. And she had no idea where to start.

ROBOTS ROLL Naomi Zirkind ’83 observes a robotics test at Picatinny Arsenal.

“I felt like I didn’t know anything about anything because I had been out of it for so long,” says Zirkind ‘83, SM ‘83, Eng ‘85, EE ‘85, PhD ‘89. “I needed guidance on how to make a plan and get back into it. I needed some advice.”

That afternoon at her home computer, Zirkind pulled up MIT’s Institute Career Assistance Network (ICAN) and began searching for an alumni advisor. Someone in biomedical engineering, preferably in New Jersey, would be best. Five names came up; Rick Lufkin ‘68 was nearby.

“My first impression of Naomi was–here is this very smart lady, but she has been operating in a career vacuum for many years,” Lufkin says. “She contacted me directly, and we started exploring.”

MIT Mentoring and Networking Resources

  • Institute Career Assistance Network

  • Online Alumni Directory

  • Alumni Association Career Guidance Page

  • Student/Alumni Externship Program

  • MIT Career Development Center

  • MIT Career Reengineering Program

As a student at the Institute, Zirkind worked diligently, dutifully, and often alone. Ask her about it today and she’s quick to praise her colleagues and her advisors, who she says were brilliant and an inspiration to work with. But, says Zirkind, “feeling like I was part of a huge crowd was discouraging to me … and while I was at MIT, I felt that it wasn’t acceptable to ask for help.”

When she reached out to Lufkin, she simultaneously capitalized on MIT’s broad network and retreated from the idea that seeking help was somehow foolish. Lufkin thinks things are different now: in the last few years, he says, undergraduate education at the Institute “has developed very much around group processes, simulating the professional working environment of the professional working engineer, which by definition is more collaborative.”

But other ICAN advisors say some alumni may still be missing out on the useful MIT connections that they might find through either ICAN or the Online Alumni Directory.

Mike Koss ‘83, SM ‘83, has been an advisor in the Seattle area for several years. “MIT students and alums tend to be more independent minded and less used to networking or asking for help and advice,” he recently wrote. “I see that in my own behavior as well, where I tend to tough out a problem on my own rather than ‘bothering’ someone else.”

The ICAN tool takes at least some of the edge off “bothering” someone or soliciting advice, because it’s online. Indeed, ­Zirkind and Lufkin’s mentoring relationship unfolded almost exclusively online, and Zirkind says that made things simpler for her. Lufkin agrees that there were times when he needed to be brutally honest with ­Zirkind, and sending those messages through e-mail was probably easier than delivering them face to face.

And Lufkin could be very tough. “You have reached a stage in your professional career which many/most engineers … reach after a few years–technical/skill-set obsolescence,” he wrote in one e-mail to her. But in addition to offering frank feedback, Lufkin also suggested areas where Zirkind could grow, challenged her assumptions, and constantly combed his own network for contacts. Along the way, they developed a mutual trust.

“We went through many blind alleys and a lot of exploration of possible career development strategies and suggestions,” he says. “I wasn’t there to speak ex cathedra about how to do things. But I could listen and suggest avenues that I thought she’d be comfortable exploring.”

By June 2005 Zirkind had a position at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Picatinny Arsenal, NJ, which focuses on developing and improving weapons systems. She stayed in touch with Lufkin off and on and, at his advice, continued to hone her communication and management skills.

In 2009, when a higher managerial position opened up, Zirkind was well prepared to fill the spot. She e-mailed Lufkin the good news on June 25: “Rick, I just wanted to let you know that I have been offered the higher-level job in my department … thank you so much for your guidance so far.”

To date, more than 3,000 alumni have offered career advice through ICAN. Alumni have used the database to connect for one-time consultations and longer-­term counseling. They’ve reached out during unexpected moves as well as planned and unplanned career transitions.

Zirkind’s advice to alumni who need support during career transitions–or just in general–is to tap the alumni network online or in person. “If you think you need clarification, seek out someone–that person will probably be happy to offer their experience and expertise,” she says. “Don’t hesitate.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.