How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

April 25, 2024
5 min read


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/25/24

Interested in respiratory therapy? Keep reading for a step-by-step breakdown of how to become a respiratory therapist. 

Professions in healthcare are becoming increasingly popular, especially when it comes to respiratory therapy. It’s therefore no surprise that interested students are racking their brains, asking how to start a career in respiratory therapy and how long does it take to become a respiratory therapist.  

Respiratory therapists are healthcare practitioners who care for patients with pulmonary diseases. It’s common for respiratory therapists to work alongside nurses, physicians, family doctors, EMTs, and other health professionals to deliver the highest quality of care to patients with respiratory-related diseases. 

From educating fellow colleagues to assisting patients in critical care, becoming a respiratory therapist is a rewarding career path for those passionate about healthcare and helping people. If you’re interested in this life-changing career, keep reading to find out how to become a respiratory therapist!

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What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Simply put, respiratory therapists are healthcare professionals who specialize in respiratory issues such as breathing problems or lung conditions. They are trained to diagnose, treat, and tend to patients with respiratory-related matters like (but not limited to) sleep apnea, lung cancer, emphysema, spinal muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, and underdeveloped lungs. 

Being a respiratory therapist may include duties such as:

  • Responding to a code blue or other urgent care calls
  • Examining patients for breathing-related disorders
  • Monitoring patients on ventilators or breathing devices
  • Formulating therapies tailored specifically to individual patients
  • Analysis of patient diagnostics, including oxygen levels or breathing patterns
  • Patient/healthcare education

It’s common to encounter respiratory therapists in nursing facilities, doctor’s offices, asthma-related education, emergency transit vehicles, programs, patient homes, and sleep laboratories. In the hospital, patients have access to respiratory therapists in specific wards, including pediatric units, emergency rooms, and intensive care units. 

Respiratory therapists working in nursing or long-term care facilities are referred to as long-term care respiratory therapists. Meanwhile, professionals who work in pediatric wards or children’s hospitals are known as neonatal-pediatric respiratory therapists.

Steps to Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

There are several steps to take in order to become a certified respiratory therapist in the US, from earning an accredited degree to studying for respiratory therapy certifications.

Step 1: Earn an Accredited Degree in Respiratory Therapy

At a minimum, the educational requirements involve obtaining an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from an accredited respiratory therapy program. The Commission of Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) compiled a list of accredited programs for respiratory therapy for schools across the US. 

Though associate’s and bachelor’s degrees are defined as an “entryway” into the field of respiratory therapy, some experienced respiratory therapists pursue higher degrees, like a master’s, to advance their careers.

To complete a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy, you’ll likely need to take a four-year program and complete 120 credits of study. However, associate degrees typically only take about two years of study and require 60 credits. 

Step 2: Get the CRT Certification

To be a practicing respiratory therapist in 49 states, professionals must earn the National Board of Respiratory Therapists (NBRC) Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) qualification. 

To obtain the CRTs, you must pass the Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) exam. This is a three-hour test with 160 multiple-choice questions that measure the fundamental knowledge and skills of practicing respiratory therapy at an entry level.

To obtain the CRT certification, you must achieve a “high” or “low cut score.” However, testers who achieve high-cut scores on the test are eligible to obtain the registered respiratory therapist (RRT) credential, a highly coveted certification in respiratory therapy. 

Otherwise, people with a CRT certification can still work in respiratory care in outpatient clinics, diagnostic centers, or medical device manufacturing.

Step 3: Get the RRT Certification

Besides the CRT certification, many respiratory therapists aspire to earn the RRT certification. Therapists with an RRT designation often work in in-patient care facilities, outpatient clinics, and in manufacturing of medical devices. 

According to the NBRC Handbook, RRTs are respiratory therapists who gained the sufficient expertise required to “master” respiratory care, which includes, but are not limited to:

  • Troubleshooting devices
  • Evaluating patient care
  • Procedures
  • Implementing therapeutics

This certification is defined as the “standard of excellence” for respiratory therapists, as it will test a person’s advanced knowledge, skills, and expertise in respiratory therapy. You must pass the TMC and Clinical Simulation Examination (CME) to obtain your RRT certification.

Step 4: Pursue Other Respiratory Therapy Certifications (Optional)

In conjunction with the CRT and RRT certifications, the NBRC administers other certifications in respiratory care, including:

  • Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT)
  • Adult Critical Care Specialist (ACCS)
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Specialist (NPS)
  • Sleep Disorders Specialist (SDS)
  • Asthma Educator Specialist (AE-C)

Step 5: Obtain a State License

In order to practice in the US, you’ll need a state license. The exact requirements vary by state, but you’ll generally need an accredited degree in respiratory therapy and a certain number of hours of clinical experience.

However, Alaska is the only state in the US that does not require a certification by the NBRC. Instead, professionals can work in the state as a respiratory therapist upon graduating from an accredited respiratory therapy program.

Step 6: Find a Job as a Respiratory Therapist

Once you’ve got your state license, you’re ready for an entry-level respiratory therapy job. Take some time to sharpen up your resume and cover letter before applying, and work on developing your soft skills, such as critical thinking, attention to detail, and time management, to improve your chances of landing a job. 

How Long Does It Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

Before pursuing a career in respiratory therapy, many students wonder: how long does it take to become a respiratory therapist? 

In the US, it takes at least two years to become a respiratory therapist for professionals pursuing their associate’s degree. However, the timeline for becoming a respiratory therapist is dependent on you! If you are pursuing a bachelor’s degree, it may take up to four years to become a respiratory therapist. 

Learning doesn’t stop there! 

Even after obtaining their accreditation, respiratory therapists can pursue additional, further education to get into specific areas like management. Additionally, advanced degrees in respiratory therapy are not only for career advancement but offer great learning opportunities. 

Like many subsections in health care, the knowledge behind respiratory care is constantly evolving, and earning additional education is one way to get “caught up” in the information.

Respiratory Therapist Educational Requirements and Prerequisites

To become a respiratory therapist, you must have an associate’s or bachelor's degree from a respiratory therapy program. Furthermore, the program should be accredited by the Commission of Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). Completing an accredited college or university is sufficient to work in Alaska, but further certification is needed for employment in other US states.

To be a practicing respiratory therapist in all 49 states, professionals must be certified as Certified Respiratory Therapists (CRT) through the National Board for Respiratory Care. Therapists who received a high score on their CRT exams are also qualified to write exams for the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) certification.

If you’re interested in taking a program for respiratory therapy, here are some great US schools that offer respiratory therapy programs for either or both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees: 

School Degree Programs
Ohio State University Bachelor of Science
Master of Respiratory Therapy
University of Texas at San Antonio Bachelor of Science
Master of Respiratory Therapy
University of Kansas Bachelor of Science
(Dual degree & online options available)
Loma Linda University Bachelor of Science
Master of Science in Respiratory Care
University of Cincinnati Bachelor of Science
Master of Science
Rush University Master of Science
Stony Brook University Bachelor of Science
Indiana University Bachelor of Science
Oregon Institute of Technology Bachelor of Science

Respiratory Therapist Salary and Career Outlook

Respiratory therapy may be a challenging career path for some, but the life-saving rewards the job brings is worth the hassle. Furthermore, students looking to become a respiratory therapist can expect a positive career outlook.

Career Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment is expected to rise 13% between 2022 and 2032, with a projection of 8,600 respiratory therapy job openings annually. This statistic is a higher value compared to other healthcare-related practices.

In the next few years, there will be a rise in the older population, which means a higher prevalence of respiratory-related illnesses. That means there may be a demand for respiratory therapists. The BLS predicts an increase in job openings in respiratory therapy due to a retiring labor force. 

Respiratory Therapist Salary

The median salary for respiratory therapists hovers around $70,540, which is about $33.91 per hour. Such rates are similar to the salaries of medical residents and other health care professionals. The BLS also claims that the top 10% of respiratory therapists may earn over $100,520 in the US, though the “lowest 10%” will earn less than $51,970. 

Below, we’ve outlined the varying salaries respiratory therapists make according to the state they live in. 

State Employment No. Hourly Wage (USD) Annual Salary (USD)
California 15,480 $49.55 $103,060
New York 6,540 $47.49 $98,770
District of Columbia 360 $45.79 $95,240
Alaska 130 $45.48 $94,590
Washington 2,040 $45.11 $93,820

Source: BLS

Though the national median salary stands at above $70,000 for respiratory therapists, the annual salary varies by state. Moreover, the five states that offer the highest salary ato respiratory therapists include California, New York, District of Columbia, Alaska, and Washington.

Overall, when accounting for a respiratory therapist’s median salary compared to other healthcare professionals, they are relatively paid well.

FAQs: Becoming a Respiratory Therapist

A career in respiratory therapy is full of excitement! Before diving into the profession, you may be  asking questions like: “Is respiratory therapy a difficult career?” or, “How long does it take to become a respiratory therapist?” To find out the answer to these questions and more, take a look at these frequently asked questions:

1. Is Being a Respiratory Therapist Difficult?

The steps on how to become a respiratory therapist may be difficult. To start, professionals need to graduate from an accredited respiratory therapy program at the bachelor’s or associate’s level before earning their CRT certification. The process can take at least two years if you decide to complete an associate’s degree.

Like many programs, studious, hard-working students interested in respiratory therapy will find pursuing a CRT challenging yet doable. However, obtaining the RRT certification may be a bit more difficult.

The Clinical Simulation Exam (CSE) for the RRT certification is one of the hardest exams among healthcare certifications. In recent years, NBRC reported that out of 9,173 people who took the CSE exam for RRT certification, 5,334 RRT credentials were awarded, which indicates a 58.1% passing rate. 

2. Is Respiratory Therapy Harder Than Nursing?

In many ways, comparing a respiratory therapist with a nurse is similar to comparing apples to oranges. 

However, some argue that nursing may be more challenging than respiratory therapy. Nurses provide general education and support the patient's entire body. Meanwhile, respiratory therapists specifically concentrate on the cardiopulmonary system. As a result, nursing may lack the autonomy that comes with being a respiratory therapist.

Though both professions are distinct, a respiratory therapist and a nurse share similar challenges. They are at the front line of patient care, whether it’s tending to patients with breathing issues or assisting people on life support. 

Paired with the risk of infectious diseases and occasional long hours, respiratory therapy can be a rewarding yet stressful career.

3. Is Being a Respiratory Therapist a Good Career?

With a median salary of $70,540 and fairly optimistic job prospects in the US, a career in respiratory therapy makes for a great career choice. Aside from the profession’s job prospects, another advantage of being a respiratory therapist is its impact on patients’ lives. 

Daniel Garrett, the Executive Director of the American Association for Respiratory Care told US News that, “From the very first breaths of a newborn to emergency transport to helping older patients manage their pulmonary disease, respiratory therapists are there to improve and save lives. It's a challenging and rewarding profession.”

Final Thoughts

A career as a respiratory therapist is perfectly suited to people looking to work on the frontline to help patients and make a difference in the healthcare industry.

Requiring higher education in the form of an associate’s or bachelor’s, alongside certification recognized by the NBRC, the steps to become a respiratory therapist may be difficult. Paired with the job’s occasional long hours and associated stress, respiratory therapy is not for the weak of heart. 

However, aside from its optimistic job projections and promising salary, knowing that your expertise and care can save a patient’s life is extremely rewarding. 

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