In May of 1991, I went on the academic job market. This was after a 1.5 year period as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of John Connor, a pioneer in electrophysiology and optical imaging of neurons. I was having a great time in John’s lab and was in no hurry to leave this position. Most postdoctoral fellowship last 3 - 5 years, so I was nervous about going out on the job market so soon. But, my wife, a professor of music, had made it clear: “Get us the hell out of New Jersey and do it now.” So, I sent out my applications and was happy to get some offers to give job talks.
My first one was at Johns Hopkins University. I was extra nervous about the research talk. I had made the tactical error of eating hardshell crabs at lunch, and so my interview suit was encrusted with Old Bay Seasoning by the time I started speaking later that afternoon. I was jittery at first, but started to loosen up after ten minutes or so. People seemed interested and the room was full. Standing at the back was Dick Mains, a famous neuro-endocrinologist and senior member of the department. I try to make eye contact when I speak, and so I scanned my eyes around the room. But, when I went to look at Dick, his head was gone. Now here was a neurobiological curiosity. I stopped in mid-sentence, trying to figure out what had happened. People turned around in their seats to follow my gaze and then started to laugh knowingly. His feet dangling off the floor were a clue. Dick was an athletic guy who stayed in good shape. One way he did this was to do fingertip pull ups on the doorframe in the back of the lecture room. To this day, I don’t know if this was also designed as a test of my composure.
My second job interview was at University of Oregon in the lovely town of Eugene. Things went great. The faculty were friendly and smart. My talk went off without a hitch (there were no audience members with disappearing heads). Conversation was smooth and easy at the various social functions. When it came time to leave, the chair of the search took me aside. Eyeing my beard and ponytail, he whispered, “You don’t play banjo do you?”
My heart skipped a beat as I imagined the mother-of-all-trick-questions.
“That’s a relief, we have way too many banjo players as it is.”