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Career Guide

Respiratory Therapy Career Guide – Jobs, Salary and Degree Information

Written by College Cliffs Team At CollegeCliffs.com, our team, comprising seasoned educators and counselors, is committed to supporting students on their journey through graduate studies. Our advisors, holding advanced degrees in diverse fields, provide tailored guidance, current program details, and pragmatic tips on navigating application procedures.

Reviewed by Linda Weems I got started researching colleges and universities about 10 years ago while exploring a second career. While my second career ended up being exactly what I’m doing now, and I didn’t end up going to college, I try to put myself in your shoes every step of the way as I build out College Cliffs as a user-friendly resource for prospective students.

Updated: February 23, 2024, Reading time: 20 minutes

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First and foremost, students should contemplate choosing an occupation before enrolling in college. Healthcare careers are, in particular, challenging and stressful, so it is recommended to inquire and search thoroughly about all of its considerations before making a decision.

Let’s take respiratory therapy, for example. These practitioners work in both traditional and non-traditional settings. There are specific requirements set before successfully landing a job as a respiratory therapist.

A projected 13 percent increase in employment for respiratory therapists is projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the period between 2022 and 2032, higher than the 4% average for all occupations during this period.

Increasing numbers of middle-aged people and older persons are expected to contribute to a higher incidence of respiratory diseases like COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia. Lung damage from these respiratory disorders or restriction of lung function can be permanent.

A respiratory therapist should consider the following factors when deciding where to study and what to do as a career:

The following information about respiratory therapy may be helpful for students pursuing a career in this field.

College Cliffs is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

What is a Respiratory Therapist?

As a certified medical professional, a respiratory therapist specializes in delivering medical care to your lungs. High-tech medical equipment, including mechanical ventilators, is the domain of their expertise.

Physicians and nurses cooperate with respiratory therapists. Medical facilities with which they practice include emergency rooms, hospitals, maternity departments, and therapy institutions. There’s also an option to open a private clinic as a respiratory therapist.

Respiratory therapists can improve efficacy and outcomes for people with lung conditions such as emphysema, asthma, pneumonia, and other illnesses. Therapists can make individualized breathing recommendations, provide exercises, and assist patients’ improvement.

How do I Become a Respiratory Therapist?

Complete Your Degree in Respiratory Care

The first step to becoming a respiratory therapist is to earn a degree in respiratory care. Consider completing the coursework required in a bachelor’s degree program in respiratory care to provide the best career opportunities.

The bachelor’s degree curriculum covers clinical respiratory care, procedures, pharmacology, pathophysiology, mechanical ventilation, and advanced respiratory theory.

Many programs require a competency assessment to demonstrate the skills and characteristics necessary for success in the respiratory care field. You will also need to complete clinical hours to gain practical experience in this important medical field.

Choosing a university program that the Commission has accredited on Accreditation of Respiratory Care will provide you with the most options once you have completed your respiratory therapist education.

Respiratory therapists are qualified to work as bedside clinicians, pulmonary rehabilitation specialists, neonatal/pediatric/adult critical care specialists, patient educators and advocates, and in management positions in hospitals and alternative care settings after graduation.

Keep in mind that continuing education is frequently required to ensure the ongoing competency and quality of care for patients seeking medical treatment for breathing problems.

Pass the Credentialing Examinations

The next step in learning how to become a respiratory therapist is to become a Certified Respiratory Therapist. For this, The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) administers the exam.

Apply for and Obtain a State License

Except for Alaska, every state in the US requires respiratory care practitioners to be licensed. To be eligible for licensure in these 49 states, students must have an associate’s degree.

Most states conduct background checks for licensure applicants, and some even provide trainee licenses to students enrolled in an accredited respiratory care program.

Start Your Job Search!

While starting a job search in respiratory therapy may seem daunting, we have some pointers to help you get your first job in the field. 

What are the educational requirements for a Respiratory Therapist?

Applicants for respiratory therapist positions must have an associate’s degree, although employers may prefer candidates with Bachelor’s degrees. Institutions of higher learning, vocational institutes, and the Armed Forces provide these educational programs.

To become licensed, you may have to complete a training program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. How long is respiratory therapist school? Well, it depends on the program.

The courses typically encountered in respiratory therapy programs include:

Respiratory therapy programs also deal with studies about patients, therapeutic and diagnostic tests, and training about cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). 

There are clinical components essential for students’ learning, like gaining practical and supervised experience while handling patients in existing medical facilities.

High school students should brush up on their skills and knowledge about health, science, math, chemistry, biology, and mathematics if they wish to partake in the career path toward respiratory therapy.

Credential Examinations

The NBRC administers two national exams that must be challenged by graduates of a respiratory therapy program to gain access to the workforce. A low and a high passing score can be obtained in the first test, called the Therapist Multiple Choice Exam (TMC).

Although the student has a relatively low score, she or he will be awarded the Certified Respiratory Therapist national credential. She or he can apply for a CRT license if the state now grants this license.

The candidate will qualify to take the Clinical Simulator Exam (CSSE) with a high score, which will then apply for the national certification of Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).

Therapy licenses are issued based on credentials earned at national conferences. The State of Alaska is the only one that does not require a state license. Some universities and colleges are accredited to award Bachelor’s degree, Associate’s, and Master’s degree programs that are statewide recognized all over the U.S.

What are the skills required to be a Respiratory Therapist?

The Holland Code framework indicates that respiratory therapists have interests in the Building, Helping, and Thinking concern areas. Making or fixing practical things is one focus of the Building interest area.

Research and investigations into natural laws are the primary focus of the Thinking interest area. Those with a Helping interest area tend to help, serve, counsel, and teach others.

Take a career test to see if you fit a career as a respiratory therapist. Suppose you don’t know which of these following Interest Areas is suitable for you.

Respiratory therapists should possess the following specific skills:

A compassionate attitude

Patients undergoing treatment need respiratory therapists who can give emotional support and sympathize with their needs.

Problem solver 

Respiratory therapists need solid problem-solving skills. They are responsible for assessing patients’ symptoms, consulting with other health professionals, and then recommending and administering appropriate treatments.

Particularly keen on detail

An eye for detail is essential for respiratory therapists to give patients the right treatments and medications and keep a close eye on various aspects of patient care.

Patient

The respiratory therapist may work long hours with patients who require extra care. You should have the patience to withstand the different behaviors of your diverse patients. 

Adept communication and interpersonal skills

Respiratory therapists must be keen on following the instructions of a supervising physician. You must be able to communicate openly while discerning the proper protocols implemented by your team. 

Skilled in math and the sciences

To determine the correct medicine dose for a patient, respiratory therapists must know anatomy, physiology, and other sciences.

Respiratory Therapy Career Guide fact 2

What are the Respiratory Therapist’s duties & responsibilities?

In general, respiratory therapists must be able to:

A respiratory therapist will develop a therapy plan for a patient based on their interview, and examination, and consultation with a doctor. The patient’s mouth or nose may be cleaned, and a breathing tube may be inserted into his windpipe and connected to an oxygen machine.

A respiratory therapist can also provide emergency care to people suffering from heart attacks, accidental drowning, and even shock. Some traveling respiratory therapists work in-home care settings to install respiratory equipment and instruct caretakers in its application.

What are the benefits of earning your Respiratory Therapy degree online?

A respiratory care therapist employed in the field alongside those aspiring to one can benefit from an online degree program.

Some colleges and universities prepare professional Certified Respiratory therapists and Registered Respiratory Therapists by offering career advancement programs. Management opportunities, advanced clinical practice opportunities, and graduate school programs are provided, too. 

You can elevate your current status and skills by enrolling in a robust curriculum geared towards advancing respiratory therapy practice and research. You can develop a deeper and more grounded understanding and know-how about healthcare operations, leadership, technology, project management, and logistics.

All these and more are attained through online programs. You will have the flexibility of completing the required number of hours for courses at your pace while being employed in your full-time work. 

How long does it take to become a Respiratory Therapist?

It generally takes about two years to meet the modern requirements for an R.T., such as an R.A. degree and a state license. A variety of flexible and accelerated programs are available. Aspiring Respiratory Therapists who can commit more time to school have Bachelor’s degree options as well.

Is there a demand for Respiratory Therapists?

Yes, there is a demand for Respiratory Therapists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be a 13% increase in job opportunities for Respiratory Therapists between 2022 and 2032. This growth is much faster than the average for all occupations.


Types of Respiratory Therapist Degrees

R.T.s can specialize in any one of several different types of respiratory therapy.

Adult Respiratory Therapy

nurse puts oxygen mask on elderly woman patient lying in the hospital room bed, wearing protective gloves and visor medical mask, coronavirus covid 19 protection concept

A hospital, outpatient, or home setting is usually the setting for adult respiratory therapy. Routine care for chronic diseases, including cystic fibrosis, may be provided by an R.T. The treatment of emphysema is often included in respiratory therapy for adults. Sometimes, R.T.s directs programs for adults to help them quit smoking.

When the lungs recover from surgery or a traumatic event, pulmonary rehabilitation helps restore breathing capacity. Treatment may be provided by a community-based therapist (RT) outside of the hospital. Also, they spend time and work in sleep labs to diagnose and treat sleep apnea.

Geriatric Respiratory Therapy

Young female physician caring about elderly disabled woman sit on couch using stethoscope listen sounds by heart or lungs, health test of older generation, medical insurance nursing eldercare concept

Our lungs also age as we do. Older people often benefit from respiratory therapy because it helps them breathe more efficiently. People over 65 are likely to encounter respiratory tract infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and bronchial pneumonia.

Geriatric respiratory therapy takes place in hospitals, daycare centers, or at the patient’s home.

Emergency Respiratory Therapy

Emergency Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapy like this is usually provided in hospitals. They help patients recover from heart surgery and lung failure, as well as with emergency room cases. In addition to performing complicated surgeries, some R.T.s treat patients’ pneumonia.

A big part of EMR requires ventilators. R.T.s must be able to administer life support to patients who need it.

Pediatric Respiratory Therapy

Woman doctor listening with stethoscope little girl in clinic. Diagnostics of diseases of cardiovascular system in children concept

R.T.s who specialize in pediatric cardiopulmonary care focus on newborns and young children. Sometimes, they work in hospitals where they look after patients in intensive care units, including newborn babies.

Children and adolescents who have asthma can seek outpatient care from some pediatric respiratory therapists.

Children or newborns are often transported by ambulance or helicopter by pediatric emergency transport teams at hospitals. Respiratory Therapists and Registered Nurses typically make up these teams.


Concentrations of Specializations of Respiratory Therapist Degrees

Pulmonary Diagnostics

A respirator specializing in lung function testing may enjoy the diagnostic aspects of respiratory healthcare. A pulmonary function laboratory or physician’s office employs therapists to measure lung function and assist physicians in determining whether a person has a lung disease and, if so, what kind.

Many therapists in this area hold certifications in pulmonary diagnostics and certifications in respiratory therapy and respiratory therapy. 

You might be able to obtain a Certified Pulmonary Function Technician or Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist credential, for example. 

Management

Many respiratory therapists rise to the ranks to fill managerial positions in their departments. Staffing management, budget preparation, and hospital policies and procedures are just a few of the duties of respiratory care managers. 

Most managers enter the field after working as staff therapists for numerous years. This is a promotional opportunity for existing R.T. in medical or other institutions. Some of them have earned the Advanced level RRT license, and many have a bachelor’s degree in business or health care administration.

Home Care

Some patients with respiratory diseases such as emphysema receive health care from respiratory therapists in their homes. Therapists provide home care equipment to people at home, usually through companies or hospitals that can support such devices. It is beneficial for R.T.s to get out into the community and observe patients in their homes.

Many home care therapists need experience working in hospitals or other healthcare settings since the field requires deciding and responding quickly to emergencies. Most home care agencies prefer that you hold the advanced level of the RRT credential. 

Polysomnography

Respiratory therapists are increasingly being requested to specialize in sleep medicine technology, which has evolved into a complex healthcare field over the past 30 years. Sleep R.T.s usually work for sleep laboratories, during which time they often perform the night shift. 

Although general respiratory therapists can move into polysomnography, they will need additional education and training to learn the 77 diagnoses and symptoms and use the polysomnographic equipment safely and effectively. 

Individuals who enter sleep hold the Certified Resuscitation Technician (CRT) and Registered Resuscitation Technologist (RRT) credentials but may also desire to earn the Registered Polysomnographic Technician (RPSGT) credential.

Education

Not only must respiratory therapy educators educate future practitioners, but also provide educational resources to practicing therapists. 

A respiratory therapy educator instructs or teaches courses at community colleges, universities, and hospitals and is employed as a continuing education coordinator for respiratory therapy departments at hospitals.

Nearly all respiratory therapist educators entering the specialty will have held the advanced level RRT credential as a respiratory therapist in the past. Teachers who hold advanced degrees in education are typically considered favored candidates for promotion in many schools.

Case Management

The transition of a hospitalized patient to a home healthcare setting is usually taken care of by R.T.s. These R.T. case managers coordinate all aspects of the patient’s medical needs to recover at home more effectively.

In addition to the RRT credential, many therapists hold case management credentials, such as the Certified Case Manager (CCM) credential. 

Critical Care

Many R.T.s choose the extreme care units due to the fast pace and complex care delivered there. The most advanced equipment and the sickest patients belong to a critical care respiratory therapist.   Most therapists working in the intensive care unit have advanced-level credentials in RRT. 


Financing Your Respiratory Therapist Education

Get started on your college funding procedures by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, called the FAFSA. These federal funds provide the most student financial aid in the country, giving out more than $100 billion a year to more than 15 million students in federal grants, loans, and work-study.

The respiratory care profession’s philanthropic arm will likely allow you to apply for scholarships as well. There are three scholarships organized by the American Respiratory Care Foundation which undergraduate students can take advantage of.

As for advanced degree students, there are also two scholarship programs offered for existing respiratory therapists who have finished a B.S. program.

The American Association for Respiratory Care provides scholarships:

Undergraduate Programs:

  1. Morton B. Duggan, Jr. Memorial Education Recognition Award

-eligible for anyone in any state (preferably from Georgia and South Carolina)

-amounting to $1000

  1. NBRC/AMP Robert M. Lawrence, MD Education Recognition Award

-Offered to students in their 3rd or 4th year of an accredited respiratory care degree program 

-amounting to $2500

  1. Jimmy A. Young Memorial Education Recognition Award 

-awarded to students of minority origin

-amounting to $1000, in memory of Jimmy Young (former president of AARC)

Postgraduate Programs:

  1. NBRC/AMP Gareth B. Gish, MS, RRT Memorial Postgraduate Education Recognition Award 

-amounting to $1500

  1. William F. Miller, MD Postgraduate Education Recognition Award 

-established by Dr. Miller

-amounting to $1500 

Respiratory Therapy Career Guide fact 3

Respiratory Therapist Career Outlook

Employees of respiratory therapists are projected to grow much faster than average for the entire industry, increasing 13 percent from 2022 to 2032.

Due to the increasing population of older people, there will be more demands for respiratory therapists to handle ailments like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, and other lung disorders.

The aging population will have to avail of respiratory therapy services in hospitals and other facilities. Besides hospitals and medical institutions, respiratory therapists are also employed in clinics, private doctors’ offices, or even nursing homes. 

Increased respiratory therapist demand is also expected to be a result of advances in preventing and detecting illnesses, improved medications, and improved treatments. In addition to air pollution, smoking, and respiratory emergencies, other conditions that affect the general population will continue to create a demand for respiratory therapists.

Career Advancement 

As you advance through your respiratory therapy career, you may find yourself seeking new opportunities. You have other options if you’re having trouble locating a job in respiratory care with your degree. Here are a few examples:

Work Environment

While working with patients, respiratory therapists are often on their feet for hectic hours daily. Most work in hospitals in the anesthesia and respiratory care departments. Nurses and home health care professionals are employed by nursing institutions, while others work for home health care agencies.

Work Schedule

Some positions require evening and weekend hours, but most R.T.s work full-time. 


Top 5 Respiratory Therapist Careers

The many different career paths available in respiratory therapy may be of interest to students considering a degree in the field. As the area becomes increasingly specialized, many professionals who hold RRT certification can earn other specialty certifications such as neonatal, acute care, and pulmonary function specialist certification.

Adult Critical Care Specialty

Salary: $74,613

Getting experience in adult intensive care should be a primary priority of any RRT. Most hospitals are no longer allowing CRTs inside the ICU care wards, saving this role only for specialists. Respiratory Therapists must take the Adult Critical Care Specialty (ACCS) test, which objectively evaluates their expertise and know-how in this field.

These encompass competencies specific to adult critical care that go through everything about general respiratory care.

Thus, having this accreditation indicates to employers, patients, and everyone else that you can apply your skills when faced with instances of working in intensive care areas. This examination is offered to individuals who have already previously achieved the RRT credential. 

Sleep Disorders Testing & Therapeutic Intervention Respiratory Care Specialist 

Salary: $76,285

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is becoming increasingly common, increasing the demand for therapists specializing in sleep studies. A Sleep Disorder Specialist is assessed and certified after passing the NBRC-SDS examination by a Registered Respiratory Therapist. Some respiratory therapists are also licensed in the field of critical care through exemplary conditions.

Polysomnography is performed by specialists who also diagnose and prepare treatment plans for sleep disorders. Insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea are among the conditions the sleep disorder specialist works to alleviate and treat. Several years of specialized sleep laboratory training are required to qualify for a position on this board.

It is estimated that a billion individuals suffer from sleep apnea worldwide. Because of the severe drop in blood oxygen levels caused by the interruption of air supply at night, the cardiovascular system works harder to increase oxygen flow. In the U.S., about 38,000 patients with sleep apnea die each year from difficulties related to cardiovascular illnesses.

Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist, RPFT

Salary: $58,000

With an increasing life expectancy, some occupational diseases, and the convenience of shifting patient home care, diagnosing pulmonary conditions has become more and more crucial.

There are two types of RPFTs: a hospital pulmonary diagnostician and a medical analyst. Pulmonary function technicians examine patients who may incur lung diseases or other respiratory disorders. 

The technologist performs diagnostic work on patients and works with nurses and medical professionals to identify conditions to arrive at a final diagnosis.

A respiration therapist is typically trained in pulmonary studies and has earned a license from the National Board for Respiratory Care for a general or specialized certification in respiratory therapy. Medical researchers sometimes seek assistance and support from RPFT professionals.

Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist, NPS

Salary: $117,250

In the past, premature babies would not have survived due to population growth, poor economic issues, relocations, and inadequate pregnancy care. Moreover, allergies and asthma in childhood also increase the need for this concentration of study.

A neonatal-pediatric R.T. usually works in these specific wards or general hospitals. In their first few days, newborns are monitored if they have issues with breathing and treated if necessary.

A neonatal respiratory therapist may help babies usually develop by monitoring their breathing, treating babies that naturally incur respiratory illnesses, or providing emergency respiratory care to babies under five months old.

Pediatric respiratory therapists treat children with asthma, pulmonary issues, and other respiratory disorders, performing breathing treatments and other care.

These professionals typically hold Certified Reproductive Therapist (CRT) credentials or Registered Rehabilitation Therapist (RRT), and some therapists also have a Neonatal-Pediatric Specialist credential or NPS.  Many asthma therapists working with children now earn certification in asthma management, called the Asthma Educator-Certified credential, otherwise known as AE-C.

Registered Respiratory Therapist, RRT

Salary: $129,313

Registered respiratory therapists (RRTs) are licensed respiratory practitioners throughout the country. After passing the NBRC-WRE and NBRC-CSE examinations, the National Board for Respiratory Care issues the certificate for the RRT.

To be eligible for the NBRC RRT exams, you must have previously passed both the NBRC ELE and the NBRC-ELE examinations, which are prerequisites for a Respiratory Therapist.

Many students who enroll in this program have the ambition of entering a general respiratory therapy practice after graduation. In 2009, All Healthcare magazine listed respiratory therapy as one of the top 10 top-paying jobs with an associate’s degree. U.S. News lists this position among the top jobs as well.

Home care RRT technicians, currently not requiring a particular certification, are becoming an emerging sub-specialty for respiratory therapy graduates.

As patients suffering from sleep disorders are increasingly being cared for in the home and sub-acute care facilities, it is becoming increasingly necessary for round-the-clock registered nurses to perform the following duties:

Check out this informative video about the important job of a Respiratory Therapist: