How Shelagh Larkin, MSW ‘88 and Ph.D. ‘20, Built A Social Work Career

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Returning to school was a dream for Shelagh Larkin, who came back to the University of Kentucky College of Social Work to pursue a Ph.D. 30 years after completing her master’s. Larkin, who currently serves as the director of field education at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Oh, is an experienced social worker and has worked in many areas across the field. Her dedication to her profession has been an inspiration for many, but Larkin credits the field of social work for the wide range of opportunities it offered her to make a difference and thrive professionally.

“The thing that I love about social work is that it is incredibly varied. You can spend your whole career doing different things and you’re actually prepared for that diverse experience. I think that makes social work unique,” Larkin said.  

Larkin was inspired to pursue a master’s degree in social work after speaking with her father, who reminded her the field ran in the family.

“My great aunt was a psychiatric social worker and got her degree at the University of Chicago right before World War II. My father suggested I consider it as an option,” Larkin said. “Once I really investigated the curriculum, I knew that social work was a perfect fit. For me, it was the dual focus of considering policy and larger, system-level change advocacy that appealed.”  

Larkin attended UK College of Social Work, graduating with her MSW in 1988. Her first job was as a mental health specialist at an agency in Cincinnati, where she helped with the suicide prevention hotline, crisis mental health counseling, and community prevention and education. She later transitioned to working with families before taking on her current role at Xavier University.

In 2015, Larkin decided to return to UK College of Social Work to pursue her Ph.D. and conduct research in the mental health space. That research continues today and is primarily focused on child temperament and its relationship with health ratings of children in their first year of life.

After several decades and so many different roles, Larkin is still fascinated by her chosen field and is motivated to support those who pursue it. She said her students continue to inspire her with their thoughtfulness and dedication, and that they all agree social work truly is a calling. Recently, Larkin published her book, A Field Guide for Social Workers: An Integrated Approach, which she wrote to assist students, faculty, and field supervisors in the field process to develop and demonstrate competence

“Even in my dark days, I don’t know what else I could do. My students and I talk a lot about that, how we’re just sort of hardwired to do this,” Larkin said. “I always encourage them to research and actually see firsthand the variety that’s out there of how you could spend your career in social work.”

For 85 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) has been a leader in social work education. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Like the University, CoSW is an organization that cultivates a diverse academic community characterized by interpersonal fairness and social justice. We are fiercely committed to developing outstanding social work professionals — leaders who will serve individuals, families, and communities through innovative and effective practices that are guided by cultural competency, systematic ethical analysis, and a keen and pragmatic understanding of the human condition.  

How Shelagh Larkin, MSW ‘88 and Ph.D. ‘20, Built A Social Work Career