'The pictures from space are mind-blowing'

Edmund Henley, 25, is in the second year of his research PhD in space physics at Imperial College, London.

So what on earth – or off it – is space physics?

It's different from astrophysics because it's all within the solar system. We do things like send spacecraft to other planets – Voyager and Pioneer, for example – or get pictures from satellites orbiting the Sun.

Why did you choose this?

I did a space physics course in the last term of my undergraduate degree in physics at Imperial. It inspired me, because you got incredible pictures from space missions. When I saw photos of methane rivers on Titan, I was hooked. It's mind-blowing stuff.

What is the main focus of your PhD?

I'm analysing data from four spacecraft owned by the European Space Agency, and using it to try to discover things about the properties of something called the "bow shock", a shock wave that forms between the Earth and the Sun. Satellites fly through the bow shock and take snapshots of it, showing how it changes across space and time. Similar shocks are occurring all over the universe, and we can use this one as a sort of laboratory to study them.

How much time does it take up?

My way of working isn't very efficient, so I spend quite a lot of time at the job. Sometimes I arrive at 10am and don't go until 11pm – but that shouldn't put you off, because a lot of my colleagues are more focused and work reasonable hours.

What do you like best about your PhD?

It's geeky but cool; it appeals to my inner eight-year-old. You're polishing a tiny facet of a tiny gem, doing something that only contributes an infinitesimal amount to the field. Then you step back and see that everyone else is doing the same. The best thing is the knowledge that you're part of that process.

And what is the most difficult thing about it?

Getting your brain around things. It's a really big leap up from undergraduate level; there's nobody to tell you how to do it.

Will it set you up well for the future?

I hope so! I'd like to take a postdoc position, or maybe try science journalism. After working on a particular project for a very long time you pick up some general skills as well, so you can move sideways within the field of science.

What do you need to succeed on a PhD like this?

You've got to be good at independent work and have a certain stubbornness – if something doesn't appear to be working you have to persist, but also be ready to think outside the box when required. Most of all, you need a genuine interest in your subject, because you work long hours and you could be earning a lot more working the same hours in the City.