How to Become a
Respiratory Therapist

Best Education Tracks, Key Skills, and Top Certifications

A respiratory therapist specializes in treating and diagnosing patients with different health conditions in their airways. They usually perform chest exams to evaluate the patient’s respiratory system and prescribe a treatment plan.

This guide will walk through the career paths, salaries, and requirements for this profession. If you’re wondering how to become a respiratory therapist, you’re in the right place.

What Is a Respiratory Therapist?

A respiratory therapist is a healthcare professional responsible for evaluating a patient’s lung condition and providing them with the proper treatment. They work with different
lung diseases and disorders.

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This professional also checks blood oxygen levels to ensure there are no concerns. As a respiratory therapist, you will also prescribe medication and provide respiratory care services to your patients.

What Type of School Should You Attend
to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

If you want to become a respiratory therapist, you will have to go to college and obtain an Associate or Bachelor of Science in Health Science, specializing in respiratory care. A career in respiratory therapy requires a couple of years of study and experience to get licensed.

Best Respiratory Therapist Education Tracks

To become a respiratory therapist, you can choose different educational paths. These include community college, a traditional bachelor’s degree, and specific courses to complement your career training. Keep in mind that they all vary in duration and costs.


Community College

Community college is one of the career paths you can take to become a respiratory therapist. Most community colleges offer respiratory therapy programs that last up to two years.

The main differences between community colleges and universities are the duration and curricula. While the former offers programs that last around two years, traditional university programs last four years. The first two years of a university program include general education topics such as math and biology.

According to a recent report by The College Board, the average annual tuition for community college is $3,770. This is significantly lower than $10,560, the average annual in-state tuition for public four-year universities. If this type of education matches your lifestyle and financial means, you can pursue a career as a respiratory therapist via community college.


Respiratory Therapist Degrees

One of the most common education requirements to work as a respiratory therapist is to earn an Associate or Bachelor’s Degree in Respiratory Care. These programs will give you the necessary tools you need to get certified and work in an entry-level position.

Gaining either of these degrees will allow you to take the NBRC Respiratory Therapist Multiple Choice Board Exam and, subsequently, the NBRC Clinical Simulation Examination. Once you’ve completed these steps, you will be eligible to obtain a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential. This is the gold standard for respiratory care professionals.


Respiratory Therapist Courses

Another great way to complement your education is to take respiratory therapy courses, such as those offered through the continuing education division of the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). Most of these short-term courses specialize in certain areas of study such as pulmonary anatomy and critical-care techniques.

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide

To become a licensed respiratory therapist, you must follow a couple of steps stipulated by the government and the healthcare industry. These are included in the list below.

Get a respiratory therapy degree

The first step to becoming a certified respiratory therapist is to obtain a degree. Regardless of whether you go for an associate or bachelor’s degree, you will gain the core skills you need to diagnose and treat patients. To save money, try an online college.

Pass the credential examinations

Next, you will need to pass the credential examinations conducted by The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). These are the Respiratory Therapist Multiple Choice Board Exam (TMC) and the Clinical Simulation Examination (CSE).

The first one validates that you’re prepared for an entry-level position and grants you the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) credential, accredited by the Commission on Accreditation For Respiratory Care (COARC).

If you pass the CSE, you will gain the highest credential in the industry: the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). This demonstrates you have advanced experience in the field.

Get licensed

To become a respiratory therapist practitioner, you must get a state license. Each state has different requirements. However, the most common ones are to have earned a respiratory therapy degree, and pass both the background check and medical examination.

If you’re a student, you can still obtain a trainee license, which will allow you to perform certain practices under the supervision of a specialist.

Begin the job search

Now it is time for the job hunt. You have the credentials and license needed to start working in the field, so you can begin sending out your resume.

Key Respiratory Therapist Skills

Key Respiratory Therapist Skills

Respiratory therapists must have a mix of technical and soft skills. Some of the competencies you should demonstrate include drug administration for lung diseases, measuring lung health, and oxygen administration.

Oxygen Administration

Oxygen administration is one of the most crucial tasks performed by respiratory therapists. It involves dispensing oxygen in high concentrations to improve the health outcomes for patients with different lung conditions.

Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a procedure that involves using artificial ventilation and chest compressions to maintain brain function in case of an emergency. This is done only as a preservative measure and while awaiting further help.

Respiratory therapists must be prepared to perform the procedure, especially if they don’t have the necessary equipment to help patients.

Management of Mechanical Ventilators

A mechanical ventilator provides respiratory support for patients suffering from severe clinical conditions that prevent them from breathing normally. Usually, this practice is performed along with other techniques to improve the patient’s overall health. A respiratory therapist must know how to use mechanical ventilators.

Respiratory Therapist Salary and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary of a respiratory therapist is $62,810. There is a high demand for respiratory therapists, with the number of jobs expected to grow by 19 percent by 2029. This is a significantly higher rate compared to the national average.

This demand is due to the drastic increase in patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In addition, COVID-19 has caused a spike in demand for respiratory therapists during 2020 and 2021.

Min salary


Average salary


Top salary


Entry-Level Respiratory Therapist Job Requirements

According to the BLS, you must possess an Associate Degree in Respiratory Therapy for an entry-level job. Most companies usually require candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree for other positions.

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

A respiratory therapist must perform multiple tasks during the day, depending on their patients’ conditions. These include oxygen administration, diagnosis, CPR, and drug prescription.

Administers Respiratory Treatment

Your fundamental task as one of these professionals is performing respiratory treatments. These include oxygen administration with CPR, checking oxygen concentration, and working with mechanical ventilators. The techniques and equipment you use will depend on the type of disease that a patient has.

Monitors the Patient’s Lung Condition

A respiratory therapist must constantly monitor the patient’s lung condition to make sure everything is working at the right pace. You may do this by measuring blood oxygen levels or using a mechanical ventilator to help them breathe.

Performs CPR

CPR could save somebody’s life if performed correctly. Therefore, a respiratory therapist must be able to undertake the emergency procedure.

Prescribes Drugs

Respiratory therapists are certified and licensed healthcare professionals capable of prescribing drugs to meet a patient’s needs. You will evaluate and decide which treatment works best for a particular condition.

Diagnoses Diseases

Another essential responsibility you will have is disease diagnosis. You will assess a patient’s symptoms and accurately identify the nature of their illness.

Respiratory Therapist Certifications

The National Board for Respiratory Care provides industry-recognized certifications. The third-party non-profit organization is validated by renowned institutions in the healthcare community. These include the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). Below, you can discover key certifications that this organization offers.

Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT)

This is the basic certification you need to work as a respiratory therapist. It validates that you have the fundamental skills it takes to diagnose, monitor, and provide treatment for respiratory diseases.

Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)

The RRT certification is the highest credential in the respiratory therapy industry. It demonstrates that you can administer respiratory treatments at an advanced level. Although it is an optional qualification in most states, some other states, including Ohio, New York, and California, require specialists to have this certification before they can get licensed.

Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist (CRT-NPS or RRT-NPS)

Pediatric respiratory care is a specialty level of education in the respiratory therapy field. You will still need to obtain a CRT credential if you want to get the CRT-NPS certification.

Sleep Disorders Specialist (CRT-SDS or RRT-SDS)

Certified respiratory therapists that want to specialize in treating patients with sleep disorders can go for this certification. Like the previous one, it is mandatory to have CRT certification before applying for this credential.

Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT) or Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT)

Professionals with this certification can perform tests on cardiovascular and respiratory systems. This credential has two classes. If you score above a certain threshold on the exam, you will receive a CPFT certification. If you score below the threshold, you will obtain an RPFT certification.

How to Prepare for Your Respiratory Therapist Job Interview

How to Prepare for Your Respiratory Therapist Job Interview

There is a high demand and low supply for respiratory therapists, which means there is little competition in the job market. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to ace your job interview. Consider practicing with the following questions before the interview day.

Respiratory Therapist Job Interview Practice Questions

  • Why did you choose this career path?
  • What is the most challenging aspect of your profession?
  • Have you dealt with difficult patients? If so, how did you approach the situation?
  • What are the most common tools you will use as a respiratory therapist?

How Long Does It Take to Become a Respiratory Therapist?

It might take you from two to five years to become a certified respiratory therapist, including your education process and clinical experience. However, it will also depend on whether you obtain a bachelor’s or associate degree.

An associate degree program takes around two years, while a bachelor’s degree program takes up to four years. You will also need to gain clinical experience to get licensed, which might take another year of your time.

Associate degree


Bachelor’s degree


Master’s degree


Should You Become a Respiratory Therapist in 2021?

The demand for respiratory therapists was already high before COVID-19, but the pandemic accelerated this trend. This means there are a lot of vacancies and possibilities for salaries to increase in the upcoming months.

If you’re interested in providing healthcare services like this one, you should consider becoming a respiratory therapist. However, you should know that this is a very demanding job, and you will need to consistently deliver the best professional care.

Respiratory Therapist FAQ

Is respiratory therapy school harder than nursing?

No, respiratory therapy school only focuses on the lungs and heart, whereas nursing school studies the human body much more broadly.

What classes do you need to take to become a respiratory therapist?

Some of the classes you need to take to become a respiratory therapist include cardiopulmonary diseases, cardiac and pulmonary anatomy, and ethics.

Is a respiratory therapist a nurse?

No. However, they have subjects in common and can work together to care for a patient.

How much does a respiratory therapist make per hour?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, respiratory therapists make $30 per hour. However, this could be more or less, depending on your specializations and credentials.

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