Working life stories: Karen Hunter

Karen Hunter talks to about her working life in everything from running a guest house to health data as well as her ability to adapt to changing work and life circumstances.


Karen Hunter has always had a strong work ethic. She started working when she was 12 and left school at 15, due in large part to undiagnosed dyslexia.  She then set up and ran her own business around her four children before reinventing herself after she developed sepsis, at one point working full time while doing a degree and running a guest house on the side. She is certainly not short of determination and commitment. But after a health scare she was forced to take time out and now she is back looking for new opportunities.

Karen’s working life started after leaving school. She had her children at a young age and did lots of different jobs around them, including childminding. She was also helping her husband out with advice and he encouraged her to stretch herself. She decided to set up her own guest house business in St Andrews. Karen built the business into a successful enterprise, so successful that she and her husband were able to put their daughter into private school when she too started showing signs of dyslexia. Eventually, with the help of scholarships, the family were able to put all their children into private school.

Karen worked seven days a week and all hours on her business. She was forced to give it up, however, after succumbing to sepsis. She sold the guest house and used her business skills to get a job as a financial administrator for a cancer charity – now the Worldwide Cancer Research – which gave out grants to research fellows across the world. There she was able to build her financial skills and confidence. During her line manager’s long-term absence,  Karen was asked to step up.

Karen’s next job was at the University of St Andrews, looking after British Council grants and Erasmus funding. She loved working with students and helping them with their organisational skills. She then won a promotion to a role as research manager of the University’s Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit which involved travelling abroad twice a year to coordinate a research project involving 34 countries.


While she was doing that job, Karen’s husband encouraged her to take advantage of a part-time degree programme which covered maths, biology, psychology, computer science and management. Karen had just been diagnosed with dyslexia and was able to access support. She fit the degree around her full-time job, working mainly in the evenings and at weekends with additional flexibility from her line manager. She graduated four and a half years later in 2015, on the same day as her third child.  At the same time she was continuing to work in the guest house industry, but running a smaller property than before, with regular guests and some self catering. “People would not believe what I was managing to keep money coming in,” she says. “I would be rushing home at lunch to make beds on some occasions.”

Karen went on to do a master’s course in management and was again able to flex her job around her studies. She graduated in 2019 on the same day as her youngest child. The unit she was working at relocated to Glasgow so she took another job at St Andrews, setting up their James Mackenzie Institute for Early Diagnosis. That role extended her skills to organising the launch event and writing a business case for Chinese funders.

But Covid brought a lot of uncertainty so Karen decided to take a remote job with the London-based Health Data Research UK. Health data was a key theme of her previous job. Karen spent a year working on Covid-related data and did a short stint for a professor at the University of Edinburgh before moving back to HDR UK on a short-term contract. It was at this point that she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and with a secondary condition caused by the brain tumour called Trigeminal Neuralgia. It is treatable, but caused terrible shooting pains up her face and the drugs she was given had significant side effects, including an increased risk of infection and balance issues which caused her to have a bad fall. Karen was struggling to chair meetings and was asked to resign. Because her confidence was very low and she felt so weak she agreed and left the job in February. “I just wanted to lie in a dark room,” she says. The problem was that many didn’t realise how bad it was because physically she looked ok and she was continuing to run – something she has done all her life.

Karen has recently changed the drugs she is on and feels much more on top of things. She has been looking for work recently, although her confidence has been affected by being out of work for a while. “I have never taken time out before,” she says. She is also worried that, at 55, she may encounter ageism.

A working mum

Yet Karen’s working life shows how she has been able to adapt to multiple roles, including what she says is the hardest – being a working mum of four children. Now a grandmother, she says employers were not as supportive when her children were young. She recalls having to get into work at 8.30am at one job. There was no leeway. She didn’t want to drop her son early so she got him to cycle 15 minutes to school. Her boss came in extra early to check she was in. She says she would race in, all the while worrying that her son might be hit by a car on his bike. “I felt I had to be a bad mother to have a full-time job that I was very good at,” she says.

She adds: “It’s been quite a hard journey bringing up four children and working and trying to be a good role model. My children say they are proud of me. My time with my children was the highlight of my day and I cherished those moments, having fun with them. It’s the best feeling opening the front door. Being a mum is definitely my favourite ‘job’ and the one I am most proud of.”

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