We’re at a crucial moment in history for the federal civilian workforce: the convergence of a mass exodus of retirement-age baby boomers, significant agency restructuring and hiring freezes. All of that is happening against a backdrop of pervasive, deeply partisan rhetoric. And as a gap widens in mission-critical skills, it’s all too easy to be cynical about a continued career in public service.

My recent visit to several agencies in Washington, and participation in the Blacks in Government (BIG) National Training Institute in New Orleans this past summer — where I met with hundreds of federal employees eager to upskill, reskill, and remain in public service — gives me hope. I could see that the future federal civilian workforce is being built today in the classrooms of some of the nation’s best colleges. It is there where transformational leadership skills are being developed, cyberattacks are being thwarted, and the soft skills needed to perform and persist are being honed.

Some of the most helpful advice I’ve learned about harnessing higher education to adapt and advance one’s federal career came from our adult online students. More than one-third of them are federal employees. I’d like to share the top four tips in the hope that they inspire others who are considering the next steps in their career trajectory.

  • Talk to your supervisor or  other agency leadership about your education plans sooner rather than  later. 

One thing that continues to impress us about the federal workforce is its emphasis on training and development, and the number of folks who understand that a significant part of their job lies in helping others to advance their federal careers. We’ve been amazed to learn that early conversations our students have had led to promotion pathways, education funding mechanisms, and even desk time to complete classwork. The lesson here is that there is probably more available to you than you realize to help you pursue your education.

  • Take advantage of the culture  of learning and development within the federal government. 

Above all, be sure you earn your bachelor’s degree—at a minimum. The number of employees whose federal resumes speak volumes of their accomplishments—yet lack a bachelor’s degree—was surprising when we first started seeing a large number of federal applicants. Even more surprising was how many of them felt stuck in their current grade, or with their current level of responsibility, because they lacked this credential. Given the number of federal civilian employees we’ve seen not only earn a B.S. but also go on to complete a master’s or more, we know that these credentials, and the promise they hold for career mobility, are within reach.

  • Do your research. 

Select a Fed-friendly institution that will provide you an affordable, high-quality education and the support needed to help you succeed in meeting your education goals. There are a lot of choices for pursuing your education online, at night or on the weekends, and at many schools, “post-traditional learners” are a highly sought-after demographic. Talk to your co-workers about schools they would recommend, investigate discounted tuition programs for federal employees, scour institutions’ websites, ask lots of questions about the student experience and outcomes, and above all make sure the school you ultimately choose is regionally accredited—the highest form of accreditation.

  • Make the most of your higher  education investment — and the government’s, too.

Use your agency as a learning laboratory while you are still pursuing your education. The best adult-centric academic programs are experiential in nature, challenging students to bring what is learned in the classroom into the workplace and report back on what worked and what could be improved upon. Many of our students have found themselves in the enviable position of raising their profile, and their promotion potential, within their agency or component while contributing both to the vibrancy of the classroom discussion and the mission of their agency.

Melissa Marcello, associate vice president of Champlain College Online, oversees admissions, marketing and the truED Alliance Program, the school’s national workforce development partnership program. She has taught undergraduate and graduate courses at Purdue University-West Lafayette and Georgetown University, respectively, and held other positions in online program admissions and marketing over the past 10 years.