"It's like driving an 18-wheeler in traffic every day. There are so many parameters you have to adjust," says Mitch Handa.
Sound like an adrenaline rush? Well, according to Handa, working as a trader for an investment bank, it is. Handa is a physicist-turned-trader for ABN AMRO Bank's Chicago office. He started out as a Ph.D. student in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1996. "At first I was writing a dissertation on esoteric stuff like mathematical physics," he says, "and then later on I switched topics because I felt like I was in my cubicle talking to myself too much." Thinking a change in research topic might spice things up a little, he switched to working on a more practical, computational problem. But even that got old after awhile. "The flip side of working on a practical problem," says Handa, "was that it was so practical that I began to feel like the challenge wasn't there anymore, so I became very bored."
Despite his boredom Handa continued on with his plans to finish his dissertation. Then one day while surfing the Web in search of a math paper, he came across an announcement for a program in financial mathematics at the University of Chicago. "I got an application, applied, and then forgot about it," he says-that is, until he got accepted. Faced with a new opportunity, Handa decided to take it and left UCLA with a Master's degree in physics in 1996.
While at the University of Chicago, Handa began working for ABN AMRO on a part-time basis doing some programming to design a trading system and got a foot in the door. Then says Handa, "I started interviewing for jobs and the moment I started getting some positive feedback and got one offer they [ABN AMRO] basically jumped on me and gave me an offer and I switched over to trading."
Trading, says Handa, "is definitely entertaining." But he cautions that it's not for everyone. "This is not for faint-hearted people. You have to be disciplined. Fear and greed will kill you. You also have to be well focused. And you have to be dysfunctional in certain areas. Traders are not very nice people. But you have to be a survivor because everybody's out to get you. Everybody's trying to pick each other off. My gain is somebody else's loss."
If it sounds like a tough world, it is: "The street is littered with traders who blew up, who hid bad trades, and who ended up being prosecuted," says Handa. "To survive you have to be a mixture of physicist and drug dealer, otherwise you become a sitting duck." In this high-pressure world, traders turn over quickly. "If you're not producing," says Handa, "you're gone." The average professional life-span of a trader, says Handa, is from 2 to 5 years. After that, many of them end up becoming trading managers or go to a different division of the bank.
But even though it's a little different than solving field equations in physics, it's an extremely satisfying career, says Handa. "The rewarding part is that there is definitely plenty of action and your intellect is constantly being challenged."