CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a respiratory therapist.

Step 1

Is becoming a respiratory therapist right for me?

The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:

What do respiratory therapists do?
Career Satisfaction
Are respiratory therapists happy with their careers?
What are respiratory therapists like?

Still unsure if becoming a respiratory therapist is the right career path? to find out if this career is right for you. Perhaps you are well-suited to become a respiratory therapist or another similar career!

Described by our users as being “shockingly accurate”, you might discover careers you haven’t thought of before.

Step 2

High School

To prepare for a career as a respiratory therapist, it's advisable to take a combination of high school classes that lay the foundation for the required skills and knowledge. Here are some high school classes that can be beneficial:

  • Biology: This class provides a fundamental understanding of human anatomy, physiology, and biological processes, which are crucial for understanding respiratory system functions and related medical concepts.
  • Chemistry: A chemistry class can help you grasp the basic principles of chemical reactions, which are relevant to understanding medications, gases, and other substances used in respiratory therapy.
  • Physics: Physics courses cover concepts like pressure, fluid dynamics, and gas laws, which are directly applicable to respiratory therapy practices, especially when working with mechanical ventilation.
  • Mathematics: Strong math skills are essential for accurate dosage calculations, patient assessment, and understanding data related to respiratory therapy.
  • Health Sciences/Medical Terminology: These classes introduce you to medical terminology, health-related concepts, and basic healthcare practices, which will be valuable when you start studying respiratory therapy.
  • Anatomy and Physiology: Some high schools offer more advanced courses in anatomy and physiology. These classes provide in-depth knowledge of the human body's structure and function, which is directly relevant to respiratory therapy.
  • Communication Skills: While not a specific class, improving your communication skills through English or communication courses will be vital for effectively interacting with patients, their families, and the medical team.
  • Computer Science: Respiratory therapists often use electronic health record systems and medical software. Basic computer skills can be helpful in navigating these systems efficiently.
  • First Aid/CPR: While not always offered as part of the regular curriculum, taking a first aid or CPR certification course can give you valuable life-saving skills and a glimpse into medical procedures.
Step 3

Associate Degree

An Associate Degree in Respiratory Care is a common educational pathway for individuals looking to become licensed respiratory therapists. This degree program prepares students with the necessary knowledge and skills to provide respiratory care to patients with various respiratory disorders.

Note: It's important to choose an associate degree program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). Graduating from an accredited program is often a requirement for licensure and ensures that the education you receive meets industry standards.

Here's an overview of what you can expect from an associate degree program for respiratory therapists:

Program Duration
Associate degree programs in respiratory care typically take around two years to complete. Some programs might offer accelerated options or part-time study, which can affect the duration.

The curriculum of an associate degree program covers a variety of topics related to respiratory care, medical sciences, and patient interaction. Some common courses include:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Patient Assessment
  • Cardiopulmonary Diagnostics
  • Respiratory Care Procedures
  • Mechanical Ventilation
  • Neonatal and Pediatric Respiratory Care
  • Critical Care Management
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation
  • Respiratory Care Ethics and Law
  • Clinical Practicum

Clinical Experience
A significant portion of the program is dedicated to clinical rotations. During these rotations, students gain hands-on experience working with patients in various healthcare settings, such as hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers. Clinical experience is essential for developing practical skills and applying theoretical knowledge to real-world situations.

Licensure Preparation
Associate degree programs prepare students for the licensure exams required to become a certified respiratory therapist (CRT) and, optionally, a registered respiratory therapist (RRT). The curriculum is designed to align with the content covered in these exams.

Career Opportunities
After completing an associate degree program and obtaining licensure, you can work as a respiratory therapist in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and home care. You'll be responsible for assessing patients, providing treatments, managing ventilators, and educating patients and their families about respiratory care.

Step 4

Bachelor's Degree

A Bachelor's Degree in Respiratory Care is an advanced educational pathway for individuals who want to further their knowledge and skills in the field of respiratory care. This degree option offers more in-depth coursework, additional clinical experience, and potential opportunities for specialization.

Note: It's important to choose a bachelor's degree program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) to ensure that you receive quality education and meet licensure requirements.

Here's an overview of what you can expect from a bachelor's degree program for respiratory therapists:

Program Duration
A Bachelor's Degree in Respiratory Care typically takes about four years to complete, similar to most bachelor's degree programs. Some programs might offer accelerated options for those with an associate degree or prior college credits.

The curriculum of a bachelor's degree builds upon the foundational knowledge gained in an associate degree program. In addition to core respiratory therapy courses, students might take more advanced courses in areas such as:

  • Advanced Cardiopulmonary Physiology
  • Research Methods in Respiratory Care
  • Healthcare Management and Leadership
  • Critical Care Pathophysiology
  • Evidence-Based Practice in Respiratory Therapy
  • Advanced Pulmonary Function Testing
  • Adult and Pediatric Critical Care Management
  • Advanced Mechanical Ventilation
  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Disease Management
  • Clinical Education and Preceptorship

Clinical Experience
Bachelor's degree programs continue to include clinical rotations to provide students with extensive hands-on experience. These rotations might include specialized areas like neonatal and pediatric care, adult critical care, and pulmonary diagnostics.

Licensure Preparation
Just like with associate degree programs, bachelor's degree programs prepare students for the licensure exams required to become certified respiratory therapists (CRT) and registered respiratory therapists (RRT).

Advantages of a Bachelor's Degree

  • Advanced Knowledge: A bachelor's degree program offers a deeper understanding of respiratory care principles, clinical practices, and patient management.
  • Opportunities for Leadership: The additional coursework in healthcare management and leadership can prepare graduates for supervisory or management roles within respiratory therapy departments.
  • Specialization: Some bachelor's degree programs allow students to specialize in areas such as critical care, sleep disorders, or pulmonary rehabilitation, giving them a competitive edge in the job market.
  • Research and Education: Graduates with a bachelor's degree might have opportunities to pursue roles in research, education, and teaching within the field of respiratory therapy.
  • Career Advancement: A bachelor's degree can open doors to higher-level positions, advanced practice roles, and increased earning potential.
Step 5


Licensure is an important step for individuals who want to work as respiratory therapists. Licensure ensures that healthcare professionals meet the necessary educational and competency standards to provide safe and effective patient care.

Note: Licensure requirements can vary significantly from state to state. Some states have specific requirements or unique application processes. Therefore, it's crucial to research and understand the specific requirements for licensure in the state where you plan to practice.

Here's an overview of the typical licensure process for respiratory therapists in the US:

Certification and Licensure:

  • Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT): Before obtaining licensure, individuals usually need to become certified as a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) through the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). To become a CRT, you need to pass the NBRC's Therapist Multiple-Choice (TMC) Exam.
  • Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT): While CRT certification is the minimum requirement for practice in some states, many respiratory therapists aim to become Registered Respiratory Therapists (RRTs), which requires passing additional exams. To become an RRT, you need to pass the Clinical Simulation Exam after passing the TMC Exam.

Licensure Process:

  • Education: To become eligible for licensure, you must complete an accredited respiratory care education program. This is usually an associate or bachelor's degree program.
  • Application: After completing your education and obtaining CRT or RRT certification, you'll need to apply for licensure with your state's regulatory board. Requirements and application processes vary by state, so be sure to check the specific requirements in the state where you intend to practice.
  • Licensure Exam: Some states require additional state-specific exams in addition to the NBRC exams. However, most states accept the NBRC CRT and RRT certifications as part of the licensure process.
  • Background Check and Fees: Many states require applicants to undergo a criminal background check and pay application and licensure fees.
  • Continuing Education: After obtaining licensure, you'll likely need to complete continuing education requirements to maintain your license. Continuing education ensures that you stay up-to-date with the latest advancements in the field and maintain your competency as a respiratory therapist.
Step 6


Respiratory therapists can specialize in various areas within their field. Some potential specializations include:

  • Neonatal and Pediatric Respiratory Care: Focusing on providing respiratory care to newborns and children with breathing disorders or illnesses.
  • Adult Critical Care: Specializing in treating adults with severe respiratory conditions in intensive care units (ICUs) and critical care settings.
  • Pulmonary Function Testing: Concentrating on performing and interpreting various tests to assess lung function and diagnose respiratory diseases.
  • Sleep Medicine: Dealing with sleep-related breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea, and assisting patients with specialized breathing equipment like CPAP machines.
  • Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation: Helping patients with cardiac and pulmonary issues improve their cardiovascular and respiratory health through exercise and therapy.
  • Home Care: Providing respiratory therapy services to patients in their homes, often involving long-term care for chronic respiratory conditions.
  • Education and Research: Engaging in teaching and research roles to advance the field of respiratory care and educate future therapists.
  • Transport Respiratory Care: Specializing in providing respiratory support during patient transport, particularly for critically ill individuals being moved between medical facilities.
Step 7

Employment Opportunities

Here are some potential employment opportunities for respiratory therapists:

  • Hospitals: Hospitals are one of the primary employers of respiratory therapists. Therapists work in various departments, including emergency rooms, intensive care units (ICUs), and general medical-surgical units.
  • Long-Term Care Facilities: Respiratory therapists can work in long-term care facilities, providing care to patients with chronic respiratory conditions or those in need of ventilator support.
  • Home Healthcare: Some respiratory therapists work for home healthcare agencies, providing care to patients in their homes. This may involve setting up and monitoring home ventilation equipment, conducting assessments, and providing patient education.
  • Rehabilitation Centers: Respiratory therapists can work in rehabilitation centers, assisting patients in recovering from surgeries, illnesses, or injuries that affect their respiratory function.
  • Sleep Centers: With the rise in sleep-related disorders, respiratory therapists can find employment in sleep centers, helping patients manage conditions like sleep apnea.
  • Diagnostic Laboratories: Some respiratory therapists work in diagnostic laboratories, conducting and interpreting pulmonary function tests and other diagnostic assessments.
  • Educational Institutions: Respiratory therapists can work as educators in colleges, universities, and vocational schools, training future generations of respiratory therapy professionals.
  • Medical Equipment Sales and Support: Some therapists work for medical equipment companies, providing technical support and training to healthcare professionals using respiratory devices.
  • Research Facilities: Opportunities exist in research institutions where respiratory therapists can contribute to studies and clinical trials related to respiratory care.
  • Travel Assignments: Through staffing agencies, respiratory therapists can take on temporary or travel assignments in various healthcare settings across the country.
  • Telemedicine: With the advancement of telemedicine, respiratory therapists can offer remote consultations and support for patients managing chronic respiratory conditions.
  • Government Agencies: Some respiratory therapists work in government agencies or public health organizations, contributing to programs related to respiratory health and disease prevention.