Breathing is our sustaining life force. It’s a crucial motor function that keeps us moving. As such, it only makes sense that a career in respiratory health would be rewarding, reputable, and well-paying. This is why so many healthcare professionals are turning toward the field of respiratory therapy.
In this article, we’ll discuss the necessary steps to take toward this promising career path. Read on to learn how to become a respiratory therapist—and a successful one, at that.
What Is a Respiratory Therapist?
A respiratory therapist is a specific type of certified healthcare professional. So, what is a respiratory therapist? Respiratory therapists (RTs) are trained to treat, diagnose, and care for patients with lung and breathing-related issues. These conditions range from chronic pulmonary diseases to acute lung illnesses, though RTs also address breathing problems that result from acute injuries, musculoskeletal conditions, and birth defects.
Some of the most common conditions that RTs treat include:
- Lung cancer
- Bronchial pneumonia
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Sleep apnea
- Underdeveloped lungs (premature babies)
- Spinal muscular dystrophy
- Parkinson’s disease
Respiratory therapists treat a wide variety of patients and conditions, but the common thread throughout their work is its relation to pulmonary or respiratory functioning.
Steps to Becoming a Respiratory Therapist
Now that you’re familiar with the profession, it’s time to dive into the process of becoming a respiratory therapist. From education to licensure, we’ve laid out the necessary steps for prospective respiratory therapists to begin working.
#1 Earn Your Undergraduate Degree
Prospective RTs have two options when it comes to undergraduate education: an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. Each program comes with its own set of pros and cons, depending on your lifestyle, limitations, and eventual goals:
- Associate’s – Associate degree programs usually take two years to complete. While this option can be a faster and more affordable route to earning your degree, it may not open as many doors. Many employers offer lower salaries or strictly hire applicants with a bachelor’s degree in the field.
- Bachelor’s – Full-time bachelor’s degree programs are usually completed in four years. While a bachelor’s respiratory therapy program may be pricier and take a longer amount of time, this path can pay off down the road. Bachelor’s-educated RTs often earn higher salaries and receive more job offers than their associate degree counterparts.
So, how long is respiratory therapist school? That’s highly dependent on the school and respiratory therapy program you enroll in.
With either route, students in a respiratory care program will learn a variety of skills through a diverse curriculum and hands-on clinical practice. Core classes for respiratory therapy students usually include:
- Biology and microbiology
- Physiology and pathophysiology
- Clinical respiratory care
- Respiratory health promotion
Clinical practice hours are required by most respiratory therapy programs. During these hours, students will gain real-world experience in a hospital or private practice setting.
These experiential practice hours are an important step toward a successful career in respiratory therapy. When deciding on an undergraduate school, you’ll want to look for programs that offer meaningful placement opportunities at top facilities to get the most out of this curricular requirement.
Many graduates go on to earn advanced degrees, such as a Master of Science in Respiratory Care or a Master of Health Science in Respiratory Therapy, to name a few. While this isn’t necessary to become a practicing respiratory therapist, pursuing a master’s degree can lead to numerous career benefits, including:1
- Higher salaries – RTs who hold a master’s degree typically earn higher salaries than their peers. Data suggests that master’s-educated healthcare workers earn 35% more than their bachelor’s-educated counterparts.
- Greater job opportunities – In addition to working directly with patients, an RT with a master’s degree could also pursue a career in education or leadership. Respiratory therapists with advanced degrees often teach at universities and vocational schools or assume managerial and supervisory roles in the respiratory health field.
The bottom line: Education is the first step toward becoming a respiratory therapist. An associate’s degree is the minimum requirement in order to practice, but some employers may require specific educational requirements, prerequisite courses, and a higher level of education. Most RT programs incorporate science, mathematics, and medical classes, as well as clinical practice hours.
#2 Pass Your Certification Exam
Congratulations, you’ve passed the first hurdle and are ready to move onto RT certification.
Graduates will need to pass a national exam in order to receive their RT license. Below are the two levels of certification that exist in the respiratory therapy field, and what you’ll need to do to receive each of them:2
- Certified Respiratory Therapist – A Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) is the first level of licensure in the field. To practice as a CRT, you’ll need to pass your state’s multiple-choice licensing exam (excluding Alaska). All exams are distributed by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) and will focus on both the medical knowledge and practical skills needed to provide proper respiratory care to patients.
- Registered Respiratory Therapist – A Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) is the highest level of certification you can receive in this field. In order to become an RRT, you’ll need to pass the NBRC with high marks, then take an optional second test known as the Clinical Simulation Exam. Those who pass the Clinical Simulation Exam officially earn the title of RRT and can practice as such.
In addition to the CRT and RRT licensing exams, most employers also require a valid cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certificate. Many RTs work in critical care settings, where immediate resuscitation may be required on a regular basis.
A CPR certificate can be earned through a short in-person or virtual training class. The American Heart Association recommends that medical professionals renew their CPR certificates every two years.3
The bottom line: Prospective RTs can choose to practice as a Certified Respiratory Therapist or go on to earn a more advanced certification and practice as a Registered Respiratory Therapist. Both credentials require you to take and pass an NBRC licensing exam, and the second is only available to top scorers on the first. A valid CPR certificate may or may not be required, as well.
#3 Apply for Your State RT License
After passing the NBRC exams and earning your credentials, you’ll need to apply for a respiratory therapist license in your state.
There are three factors to keep in mind when filling out an RT license application:
- Fee – The application requires a $300 submission fee.4
- Background Check – Most states run a background check on their RT licensure applicants.
- Deadline – Depending on your location, there may be a state-imposed time limit between when you completed your exams and when you have to file for your license. Submitting an application after the allotted window has closed may render your test scores invalid.5
The bottom line: After you pass your exams and earn your credentials, you’ll need to submit a license application in your state. It’s important to apply for your license promptly to avoid having to retake the requisite examinations.
#4 Find a Job
The final step to becoming a professional respiratory therapist is finding employment. RTs can work in many different facilities, including:
- Private practices
- Hospitals and emergency rooms
- Sleep disorder testing centers
- Nursing homes
- Rehabilitation facilities
- Patient homes
Your daily responsibilities might look very different depending on the work environment you choose. In-home patient care often centers around breathing machines and education, while working in an emergency room requires fast-paced, acute care, often regarding trauma injuries and respiratory arrest.
Some of the most common duties for respiratory therapists include:6
- Intubating critical care patients
- Administering breathing medications
- Conducting lung function tests
- Monitoring blood oxygen levels
- Creating treatment plans
- Educating patients on respiratory health
Some RTs choose to narrow their scope of care even further. Common specializations within the respiratory therapy field include:
- Emergency services
- Adult care
- Pediatric and NICU care
- Geriatric care
- Sleep disorder research
RTs aren’t required to choose or pursue a specialization, but there are benefits to doing so. Specialized expertise can open the door to greater job opportunities, more rewarding work, and more meaningful relationships with patients. Some RTs also take on multiple specializations to widen their job prospects and employability.
The bottom line: Respiratory therapists may focus on the lungs, but their job opportunities reach far and wide. RTs can be found in a number of different healthcare facilities, and they may work in one or more specializations within the field.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?
Most people will spend at least two years pursuing a career in respiratory therapy, and many will take four or more years to earn their bachelor’s degree and complete their licensing exams and application requirements.
Your exact timeline will be most prominently affected by variables such as your desired education level, the examination schedule and your number of attempts, and the state of the job market when you apply to and interview for RT positions.
It’s important to remain patient, work hard, and look toward the future. The process may seem lengthy at times, but the end goal is worth it.
Start a New Career with Host Healthcare
Now that you know how to become a respiratory therapist, are you looking for a change of pace or scenery? Would you like to breathe new life into your career? Or are you perhaps looking for the right place to land after finishing your education and state licensing?
Host Healthcare might just be the opportunity you’ve been looking for—or should have been looking for, even if you hadn’t realized it yet.
Host Healthcare is one of the leading travel healthcare companies in the United States. We match our travelers with diligent recruiters who care about their career goals and placement preferences, working tirelessly to find the respiratory therapist position that’s right for them.
Your next job could be right around the corner—or on the other side of the country! Apply to be a traveler today and Host Healthcare can help you find it soon enough.
- Barnes, Tom. “The Value of a Master’s Degree in Respiratory Care.” Northeastern University Graduate Programs, 8 Nov. 2019, www.northeastern.edu/graduate/blog/masters-in-respiratory-care-leadership/
- “Respiratory Therapist Career Guide.” Gwynedd Mercy University, www.gmercyu.edu/academics/learn/become-a-respiratory-therapist
- “How Often to Renew Your CPR Certification.” CPRologist, 1 Feb. 2019, www.cprologist.com/blog/how-often-to-renew-your-cpr-certification/
- “Respiratory Care Board of California Frequently Asked Questions.” Respiratory Care Board of California, 30 Mar. 2021, www.rcb.ca.gov/licensees/covid19_faq.shtml
- “Respiratory Therapist Jobs, Training, Programs, and More: The Complete Guide.” San Joaquin Valley College, www.sjvc.edu/guides/guide-to-becoming-a-respiratory-therapist/
- “What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?” Gwynedd Mercy University, www.gmercyu.edu/academics/learn/what-do-respiratory-therapists-do