Respiratory Therapist Career Path

A job as a respiratory therapist can offer a personally rewarding career in a well-paying and well-respected industry, but without the costly and time-consuming commitments to education that are so typical of other jobs in the health care field.

Respiratory therapy is the science of treating breathing difficulties. Respiratory therapists work with a broad swath of patients who all experience breathing problems of some kind, from neonates with underdeveloped lungs to adults with chronic asthma.

How to become a respiratory therapist

The typical path towards becoming a respiratory therapist is to obtain your associate degree from an accredited program, pass a certification exam and, finally, get a license to practice. This can vary by state, so be sure to check with your state board of respiratory care before settling on a program.

Respiratory therapy programs combine classroom time with dedicated lab hours, during which students can practice their new-found skills in a realistic clinical setting. Classes you might encounter while studying to become a respiratory therapist include:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Therapeutic and diagnostic procedures
  • Microbiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Chemistry
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)

After you've earned your degree, you become eligible to take the Therapist Multiple-Choice Examination (TMC), which, if passed, results in respiratory therapy certification. The TMC has two cut scores: if a test-taker achieves the lower score, he earns CRT (Certified Respiratory Therapist) certification; if he achieves the higher cut score, he can go on to take the Clinical Simulation Examination, a passing score of which earns its taker the RRT (Registered Respiratory Therapist) certification. The RRT is the ultimate educational attainment in the field of respiratory therapy.

Program requirements/prerequisites

Respiratory therapists should be compassionate, detail-oriented and competent in life sciences. Patients who suffer from breathing disorders are likely to be frustrated and distraught, so respiratory therapists need to be able to offer emotional support. They should also possess great attention to detail. The ability to stay focused at all times becomes paramount when you are responsible for a patient's treatments and medications. Finally, an understanding of anatomy, physiology and related sciences ensures basic workplace problem-solving skills, such as evaluating patients' symptoms.

Work environment

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, but some may provide in-home care or work in nursing facilities. They are involved at every level of patient care:

  • Examining patients
  • Consulting with physicians to develop treatment plans
  • Conducting diagnostic tests, such as measuring lung capacity
  • Administering treatment methods, such as chest physiotherapy or aerosol medications
  • Supervising respiratory therapy technicians

As of May 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there were 119,410 respiratory therapists employed in the United States. The BLS expects that number to grow substantially in the coming years. In fact, between 2012 and 2022, employment of respiratory therapists is projected to increase by 19%, the BLS says. That level of growth far outpaces the national average for any occupation, making job prospects for aspiring respiratory therapists extremely good.

The mean annual wage for this occupation was $58,490 in 2014, the BLS reports, with the lowest 10% still earning a healthy $41,380 and the top 10% of earners making just over $78,000.


  1. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, Respiratory Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291126.htm
  2. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Respiratory Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm
  3. The National Board for Respiratory Care, RRT Credential, http://nbrc.org/rrt/Pages/default.aspx

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