How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

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  • Most respiratory therapist positions require an associate degree, but more employers now prefer candidates with bachelor's degrees.
  • Respiratory therapists need state licensure in every state except Alaska.
  • Respiratory therapists can also earn professional certifications to increase their opportunities in the field.

Respiratory therapists provide patient care in medical facilities. They treat people who are dealing with breathing issues. These professionals sometimes have respiratory assistants who help them with their daily tasks. Often, patients suffer from chronic conditions like asthma, and respiratory therapists help improve their day-to-day quality of life.

Respiratory therapy earn higher than average salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) respiratory therapists earned a median annual wage of $61,830, which exceeds the median annual salary for all careers by more than $15,000. Respiratory therapists only need an associate degree and a state license to practice.

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Read on to learn more about how to become a respiratory therapist.

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

In most cases, prospective respiratory therapists first earn an associate degree in the field. Respiratory therapy may attract career changers as an associate degree can be fairly affordable and lead to a relatively high salary.

After earning an associate degree and state licensure, respiratory therapists can pursue entry-level careers in their field. In some facilities, respiratory therapists can advance into managerial roles supervising other healthcare professionals.

Respiratory Therapist Responsibilities

  • Care for patients experiencing breathing issues like asthma.
  • Work shifts in medical facilities that often include holidays, nights, and weekends.
  • Collaborate with other medical professionals on individualized treatment plans for patients having trouble breathing.

Respiratory Therapy Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

Below are the steps that prospective respiratory therapists must take before they can practice in a medical facility. While individual paths vary, the following is the roadmap for all professionals in the field, with several required steps.

Step 1: Earn a Degree in Respiratory Care

The first step on the path to becoming a respiratory therapist is to earn a degree in a closely related field like respiratory care. An associate degree is sufficient for most positions. Yet, many employers prefer to hire candidates with a bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy.

Most associate degrees in the field require approximately 60 credits and take around two years to complete. Most bachelor's programs in respiratory therapy require around 120 credits and take approximately four years of full-time study to complete.

In addition to classroom-based theory coursework, associate and bachelor's programs in respiratory care typically offer a clinical component, providing learners with the knowledge and skills they need as respiratory therapists in healthcare facilities.

Step 2: Complete Competency Assessment and Clinical Hours

Some associate and bachelor's in respiratory care programs end in a competency assessment. These hands-on, practical skills assessments ensure that graduates have all the skills to succeed in professional medical settings. Not every program offers these assessments. But, they are a good benchmark to determine how much you have learned over the course of a degree.

All good respiratory therapy programs allow students to gain clinical experience in the field. Since you need particular assessment and treatment skills to practice respiratory therapy, it is essential to gain experience in the field during your program. Clinical hours allow students to practice patient care and treatment.

Step 3: Get Professionally Certified

There are two main professional certifications for respiratory therapists: certified respiratory therapist (CRT) and registered respiratory therapist (RRT). To earn either certification, candidates must graduate with an associate or bachelor's degree accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). Candidates must also pass the Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) examination.

RRTs must also take and pass the Clinical Simulation Examination (CSE). A CRT is considered an entry-level certification, while the RRT is for more advanced practitioners who take on additional responsibilities.

Step 4: Obtain a State License

In every state except for Alaska, respiratory therapists must earn a state-issued license before practicing. Requirements vary but generally include an accredited associate degree in respiratory care and a certain number of clinical hours.

Licensure renewal requirements also vary. Yet, most include a certain number of continuing education hours or units during each renewal period.

Step 5: Get an Entry-Level Respiratory Therapist Job

Landing a job after graduating and completing licensure requirements is never easy; however, respiratory care graduates have positioned themselves well, as they enter a high-demand field.

Between 2020 and 2030, the BLS projects 23% job growth for respiratory therapists. This rate nearly triples the average projected growth rate for all careers (8%) during that period. Furthermore, as of May 2021, respiratory therapists earned a median annual wage of $61,830, a high salary for a career that only requires a two-year degree.

Step 6: Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

Although they do not need an advanced degree to qualify for most positions, respiratory therapists can pursue a master's degree in respiratory care to increase salary and advancement opportunitiesl. Most of these programs require 2-3 years of part-time study. Keep in mind that a graduate degree is not necessary to practice in the field.

Practicing respiratory therapists can also pursue continuing education in the form of workshops, courses, and other professional development opportunities.

What to Know Before Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

Accreditation

You should only enroll in accredited schools. Otherwise, you cannot receive federal financial aid, and many employers will not recognize the degree you earn.

In respiratory therapy, you should seek out programs with programmatic accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). Some professional organizations only award certifications to students with degrees from a CoARC-accredited program. CoARC accreditation can also make it easier to earn state licensure.

Cost

The average cost of pursuing a career in respiratory therapy depends on the degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of one year of tuition at a four-year public school in 2020-2021 was $9,359. One year of tuition at two-year public colleges cost an average of $3,501.

Online students can often save on hidden costs and true program costs by avoiding paying fees like room and board and transportation.

Salary

According to the BLS, respiratory therapists earned a median annual salary of $61,830, over $15,000 more than the average salary for all jobs. The top 10% of earners in the field made more than $95,540 annually, while the lowest 10% made less than $47,380.

The top-paying state for respiratory therapists was California, where professionals earned an average annual salary of $92,660. The top-paying industry was outpatient care centers, which paid an average annual wage of $96,470.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

What qualifications do you need to become a respiratory therapist?

To become a respiratory therapist, you need at least an associate degree in a relevant field like respiratory care. It helps if the degree is from a CoARC-accredited program. You must also earn state licensure, which often requires a certain number of supervised clinical hours before you can practice as a respiratory therapist.

Some prospective respiratory therapists choose to earn a bachelor's degree in the field. While many positions only require an associate degree, more employers prefer to hire candidates with bachelor's degrees.

What is the fastest way to become a respiratory therapist?

The fastest way to become a respiratory therapist is to earn an associate degree from a CoARC-accredited program. In most cases, an associate degree requires two years of full-time study. Some online, accelerated programs allow students to graduate in 18 months by taking more courses each semester and during the summer terms.

Students should also complete supervised clinical requirements and the state licensure process.

How much does it cost to become a respiratory therapist?

The amount of money it takes to become a respiratory therapist depends on the educational path that you take. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of one year of tuition at a four-year school was $19,020 in 2020-2021. That same year, one year of tuition at two-year public colleges cost an average of $3,501.

Costs vary widely by school and program. Check your prospective schools' tuition rates to calculate exact costs and fees.

Can I become a respiratory therapist with an online degree?

Yes, you can become a respiratory therapist with an online degree. There are many two-year and four-year schools that offer accredited online associate and bachelor's programs in respiratory care. Some schools offer blended versions of these programs in which students complete some coursework online but visit campus for certain intensive experiences.

In most cases, these programs blend asynchronous, online theory-based coursework with in-person clinical experiences. Distance learners can usually arrange to complete clinical hours at approved placement sites in their own local communities.

What does respiratory therapy training look like?

Respiratory therapy training varies based on the school and program that you attend. But, in most cases, respiratory care programs are similar. Most associate and bachelor's programs in the field blend theory-focused, classroom-based coursework with hands-on, practical experiences in the field.

Most programs include a clinical requirement in which students complete fieldwork or an internship in a medical facility under the supervision of a licensed respiratory therapist. After they graduate, students can continue to train by completing professional certifications like CRT and RRT.

BestColleges.com 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.

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