Honing critical thinking skills and having a sheepskin that proves it will soon be required before Navy officers can assume major command.

Designed to ensure the best and brightest in the officer corps develop those abilities before taking on command responsibilities, the policy shift was announced in NavAdmin message 263/18 released last week.

"In-residence education programs provide the best opportunity to mature critical and/or strategic thinking skills, " Vice Adm. Robert P. Burke, the Navy’s top uniformed personnel officer, wrote in the directive.

To Burke, the Navy’s Graduate Education Program will sculpt Navy leaders who both understand the art and science of war and "can lead in complex strategic environments.”

The Navy’s major commands ashore and at sea generally start at the captain’s level. Examples include overseeing aircraft carriers, air wings and squadrons of surface warships.

Starting with officers in Year Group 2015, completion of an in-residence graduate education program will be mandatory before an officer assumes major command.

Officers in YG15 won’t screen for major command for a long time, but Burke in his directive indicated that he’s making the announcement now so that the Navy can revamp policies to create the culture necessary to support the new requirement.

Existing administrative boards will start screening officers to ensure that the brightest will be slotted for the Navy’s in-residence and professional military education billets.

Beginning in 2020, the Navy will rewrite the precepts — the orders given to selection boards — with “language that makes clear the Navy’s expectation that we invest in developing future Navy leaders as critical/strategic thinkers” by attending graduate education programs, according to the guidance.

Those boards will then select officers for the Naval War College, Naval Postgraduate School and the Olmstead Scholar and Fleet Scholar Education Programs.

To maximize career flexibility, Burke’s directive allows officers to screen for major command before they complete their in-residence graduate school requirement.

Officers won’t be allowed to lean on online or distance education degrees but otherwise the Navy will define the requirement broadly.

“For the purpose of this policy, [in-residence graduate education] is defined as a completion of a graduate degree or professional military education program allowing officers to dedicate time in an academic environment,” Burke wrote in his message.

Officers can fund their graduate education out of their own pockets or rely on the GI Bill, the Navy’s Tuition Assistance program or the Graduate Education Voucher initiative.