How to Become a Respiratory Therapist:
The Definitive Guide

Breathing is essential to life, and as a Respiratory Therapist, you’ll be giving people the chance to continue breathing easily through their acute or chronic illnesses.

In order to work in this field, you’ll need a broad knowledge of pathophysiology and the cardiopulmonary system.

If helping people live their best life by treating their lung conditions sounds like something that might interest you, read on, and discover how to become a Respiratory Therapist.

What is a Respiratory Therapist?

There are many hats that a Respiratory Therapist wears.

Caring for patients and creating health plans is the number one job of a Respiratory Therapist.

However, not only do they see patients diagnose and treat acute or chronic breathing disorders, but they are also required to diagnose and find treatments for lung disease, cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses.

These wonderful people may work at hospitals in emergency rooms or intensive care units, or even in a pulmonary diagnostic lab.


Beyond managing patients and testing blood oxygen levels, a Respiratory Therapist has many duties.

Some of these special job responsibilities include:

  • Managing life support machines
  • Administering medications
  • Monitoring equipment
  • Analyzing blood samples
  • Assessing vitals
  • Analyzing x-rays
  • Conducting rehabilitation activities
  • Counseling patients
  • Consulting with medical health team
  • Performing tests and studies


Working as a Respiratory Therapist, you can expect to make around $68,000 a year on average.

If you are just beginning your career, it is more likely that you will make closer to $61,000 a year to start.

Gaining certifications, specializations, and having more experience as a Respiratory Therapist can earn you a salary of around $74,000 a year.

Some other factors that can play a role in the salary you earn are the facility that you work in and the population of the area around your facility.

Some facilities don’t have as many patients as others, which can affect salary.

Respiratory Therapists who work in bigger cities will typically have more patients as well.

  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

Annually National Average Salary: $68,190


Average Annual Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
District of Columbia$77,820
New Hampshire$70,690
New Jersey$77,580
New Mexico$59,780
New York$83,510
North Carolina$60,760
North Dakota$62,230
Rhode Island$67,970
South Carolina$61,450
South Dakota$54,580
West Virginia$55,160
Puerto Rico$24,880

Annual Average Salary: Top 5 States

The top earning state in the field is California, where the average salary is $92,660.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

California - $92,660
Alaska - $83,530
New York - $83,510
Hawaii - $80,140
Massachusetts - $78,470
*Salary information based on the May 2021 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey.
Conducted by: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

Step 1Complete a Bachelors Degree

Although an Associates’ degree is the minimum requirement for a Respiratory Therapist’s education, many employers will not hire someone with less than a Bachelors’s degree.

The typical Bachelor’s degree takes around four years to complete.

With a Bachelors degree in Respiratory Therapy, you’ll likely take courses like:

  • Health Care Management
  • Polysomnography
  • Infection Disease
  • Public Health
  • Home Health

Many career opportunities open up for people who earn a Bachelors’s degree in Respiratory Therapy.

Some of the job options you might find opportunities in include:

  • Hospitals
  • Specialty clinics like asthma or cystic fibrosis clinics
  • Pulmonology offices
  • Air and ambulance transport companies
  • Long-term care facilities

It is even possible to earn a degree online.

Keep in mind that you want to be sure your school is accredited with the Commission on Accreditation of Respiratory Care.

Step 2Become Certified

Once you finish a Bachelor’s degree program, you are going to want to get certified as a Certified Respiratory Therapist.

This way, employers will know that you are serious about the career and that you are competent in the required job performance skills.

You must make sure that you are taking an exam that is accredited with the National Board of Respiratory Care.

There are several different certifications that you can earn, but the most important ones are:

  • Certified Respiratory Therapist
  • Registered Respiratory Therapist

The Certified Respiratory Therapist certification is the only entry-level certification available.

There are 160 questions on the Certified Respiratory Therapist exam, which will provide content in these areas:

  • Patient data evaluation and recommendation
  • Quality control of equipment
  • Infection control
  • Initiation and modification of interventions

You will be given three hours to complete this exam.

The Registered Respiratory Therapist exam is the same as the Certified Respiratory Therapist exam.

Step 3Gain State Licensure

Every state except for Alaska requires that you have licensure in order to perform services as a Respiratory Therapist.

Alaska does require certification, however.

Depending on the state in which you want to work, the Respiratory Therapist state licensure contacts may be different.

Different states may have different laws, but most licensure board websites can give you direct links to any information about the state where you want to work.

Most licensures cost around $100 to obtain.

In some states, like Wisconsin and West Virginia, the license must be renewed every year.

Other states, like Alabama and Arizona, require a license renewal every two years.

Along with that, some states require you to have at least 30 hours of continued education, while others require only 8 annually.

Licensure in your state will allow you to work legally, and not having a license can get you in a lot of trouble.

Step 4Continue Education

In order to stay on top of everything happening in the medical field, it is important to continue your education.

Just because you have the job, doesn’t mean you know everything about the career.

It’s essential to continue learning, especially in a field that changes all the time.

One of the programs that are available in the Continuing Respiratory Care Program.

Some of the courses and credentials that you can expect in a continuing education program are:

  • Adult Critical Care Specialist
  • Sleep Disorder Specialist
  • Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist

Many of these programs do cost money, anywhere from $40 to $150 depending on the type of courses.

It’s also crucial to maintain licensure and renew certifications when they are due.


It’s possible to earn an Associate’s degree and have a great career as a Respiratory Therapist.

Some of the careers that can open up for you with an Associates degree include:

  • Emergency Respiratory Therapist
  • Geriatric Respiratory Therapist
  • Adult Respiratory Therapist
  • Asthma Educator

However, having an Associate’s degree will allow you to have an entry-level career.

Many employers only hire Respiratory Therapists who have a Bachelor’s degree.

This shows that they are competent and have the hands-on experience needed for the career.

An Associate’s degree can take around two years to finish, while a Bachelor’s degree can take around four years depending on whether you go full time or part-time.

There are online Bachelor’s degrees in Respiratory Therapy, however, it is recommended that you also do clinicals and internships in person.

The topics covered in a Respiratory Therapy program can vary, some of the courses that you will likely take include:

  • Ethics of Respiratory Therapy
  • Aging and Respiratory Therapy
  • Management in Respiratory Therapy
  • Community Health Problems and Practice
  • Disease Management
  • Patient Education

Most schools require a capstone project, which is like a final project, and an internship in order to fulfill requirements for graduation.

With a degree in Respiratory Therapy, you will likely find jobs like:

  • Home-based Care
  • Registered Sleep Center Technologist
  • Pulmonary Function Technician
  • Adult Critical Care Specialist
  • Sleep Disorder Specialist

If you are a Respiratory Therapist seeking an educator or researcher role, then you may want to apply for a Master’s degree in Respiratory Therapy.

A Master’s degree can take another two years to complete and is for those that have a lot of experience working as a Respiratory Therapist.

Man Respiratory Therapists say that they do no recommend earning a Master’s degree unless you plan to teach, as the job opportunities do not grow much beyond a Bachelor’s degree.

Video About The Career


While it is required in every state except for Alaska to become licensed as a Respiratory Therapist, the qualifications and requirements vary by state.

This means that you will have to decide which state you want to work in and look up the requirements for your licensure.

There are also several certifications that are available for people who are interested in working as a Respiratory Therapist.

Most certifications should be accredited through the National Board for Respiratory Care.

However, some are also accredited through the American Association for Respiratory Care.

If your certification is accredited through either of these companies, you will be good to go.

Some of the certifications that are available for Respiratory Therapists are:

  • Certified Respiratory Therapist
  • Registered Respiratory Therapist
  • Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist
  • Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist
  • Adult Critical Care Specialist
  • Sleep Disorder Specialist
  • Neonatal/Pediatric Care Specialist

The Certified Respiratory Therapist Exam and the Registered Respiratory Therapist Exam are the same and will provide nearly the same qualifications and certification.

The Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist certification is given by passing the Pulmonary Function Technologist Exam.

The exam gives two sets of grades.

If you earn a low cut grade, then you will be given the Certified Pulmonary Functional Technologist certification.

If you earn a high cut grade, then you will be given the Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist certification.

The other certifications are specialized in adult care, sleep disorder, and pediatric care.

Depending on where you want to work, the certification you choose should reflect your career.

There are several ways to gain certification, through your employer, through the National Board for Respiratory Care website, and through your school or university program.

Most of the exams have between 160-180 questions and allow for 3-4 hours to take.

The exams can cost between $40 and $100 dollars and must be renewed every three years.

Certification Example:

respiratory therapist certificate

Average Training Program Duration: 4+ Years

The average training period for certification to become certified as a Respiratory Therapist depends on you.

The certifications require that you take an exam, so studying for the exam is your best bet.

There are no programs to help with certification, career experience is key.

You may be able to find practice tests on the websites for the certifications, which can help you study.

Training can take as long as you need, whether that’s years of experience or just studying for the exam.

Popular Programs

Job Outlook

There should be a rise in career opportunities for Respiratory Therapists within the next ten years.

The career looks to grow around 21 percent, which is much higher than many other careers in the medical field.

An increase in technology and new treatments allows for more career opportunities.

The use of outpatient therapy centers and home visits will also give way to more job openings.

Since the baby boomer generation is getting older, they will also require more treatment.

Those that are willing to travel and have certifications or specializations will likely find more job opportunities to choose from.

Employment Growth Projection: 23%


That's a higher than average projected growth of 31,100 jobs.

Respiratory Therapist: Interest Over Time

Should You Become a Respiratory Therapist?

Overall Satisfaction: High

Overall Satisfaction

It seems that most Respiratory Therapists really enjoy their jobs and find satisfaction in what they do.

The career can be a bit stressful, however, it is important, and many Respiratory Therapists believe that they are doing good by helping people.

Respiratory Therapists with more experience tend to have an easier time than those who are just starting out in the field.

Depending on where you work can also be a variable in how well you enjoy your job.

Average Salary: High

Average Salary

Having a career as a Respiratory Therapist can be lucrative.

In the United States, the typical Respiratory Therapist makes around $68,000 a year.

If you are just graduating from college and don’t have the experience in the field, it is more likely that you will make around $61,000 a year.

After years of experience, certifications, and continued education, it is possible to make around $74,000 a year.

Certifications show that you are competent and at the top of the field, which creates more job opportunities and promotions.

Job Growth Outlook: High

Job Growth Outlook

With the help of technology and the use of new methods in respiratory therapy, the job growth outlook for a Respiratory Therapist is around 21 percent.

This means that there will be more job opportunities opening within the next decade.

Another reason for the growth in this job market is due to the aging baby boomer population.

More patients will need treatments for asthma, pneumonia, and COPD.

Also, people want to spend more time at home and not in the hospital.

This requires more Respiratory Therapists who want to work in homes and outpatient centers.

Education Duration: 4+ Years

Education Duration

The typical Respiratory Therapist earns a Bachelor’s degree, which can take up to four years (or more) to complete.

Although it is possible to earn an Associate’s degree, which can take around two years, it is advised to stick it out and earn a Bachelors.

Depending on which route you want to take, it’s also possible to earn a Master’s degree in Respiratory Therapy.

This program can take another two years.

This means that it can take between 2 and 6 years to become a Respiratory Therapist.

Personal Skills Needed

Personal Skills Needed

Even though it’s crucial to be educated and obtain a state license in order to work as a Respiratory Therapist, it’s also important to have a set of skills that allows you to be the best in your field.

These skills include, but are not limited to:

  • Compassion- No one wants to go to the hospital or doctor’s office and feel worse about themselves
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Ability to think on your toes
  • Organized and meticulous
  • Empathy

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How much does a Respiratory Therapist make?

On average in the United States, a Respiratory Therapist can make about $68,000 a year.

Those that have an Associate’s degree or who are just starting out in the career will likely make less annual salary at around $61,000.

If you are a Respiratory Therapist who has been working for a while, or who has certifications, it may be possible to earn up to $74,000 a year.

Q. What does a Respiratory Therapist do?

A Respiratory Therapist is someone who helps those that have trouble breathing.

This can be done by assessing the patient, administering medications, and coming up with a plan to help the patient recover.

Sometimes the issues are acute, from illness or trauma.

Other times, the issues can be recurrent or life-threatening like asthma, cancer, and COPD.

Q. How long does it take to become a Respiratory Therapist?

The average Respiratory Therapist spends about four years in school.

This earns a Bachelor’s degree in Respiratory Therapy.

However, those that don’t want to take that long in school can earn an Associate’s degree.

This can take around two years to complete.

Those that want more education can obtain a Master’s degree, which takes around 2 years to complete as well.

Q. Is there a demand for Respiratory Therapists?

With the use of technology and a better understanding of lung health, there has been a rise in the need for Respiratory Therapists.

There are even careers popping up for Respiratory Therapists to work in the patient’s home so that patients do not have to leave their comfortable houses.

It seems that there will always be a need for Respiratory Therapists as long as people have asthma and other lung issues.

Q. How much does it cost to become a Respiratory Therapist?

The cost of education to become a Respiratory Therapist can vary.

Depending on the school that you attend and the degree you obtain, the cost can range from around $5,000 to over $50,000.

Those that earn an Associate’s degree can likely expect to spend from $5,000 to $10,000.

People who obtain a Bachelor’s degree will likely spend between $15,000 and $40,000 depending on the university that they attend.

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