A respiratory therapist is a healthcare professional who treats patients with conditions that affect the lungs. They work with patients of all ages, from premature infants to senior adults.
Respiratory therapy is a great career choice, which explains why RTs are in high demand.
However, like any career, there are also some drawbacks to entering the field of respiratory care. Here are the top 15 pros and cons of being a respiratory therapist to help you decide if this is the right profession.
Top Pros of Being a Respiratory Therapist
There are several advantages to entering the field of respiratory care. Here are some of the top pros of being a respiratory therapist:
- It’s a Rewarding Career
- You’ll Earn a Respectable Salary
- Respiratory Therapists are in High Demand
- Respiratory Therapists are Essential Workers
- The Job is Never Boring
- You Can Work in Various Settings
- There are Endless Learning Opportunities
- You’ll Earn Medical Credentials
- You Can Specialize
- You Will Be Well-Respected
- You Can Work Anywhere
- You Have the Opportunity to Travel
- Your Schedule Will Be Flexible
- Respiratory Therapists are Part of a Team
- Respiratory Therapists Save Lives
1. It’s a Rewarding Career
There’s nothing quite like knowing that you’ve helped someone breathe easier. As a respiratory therapist, you’ll have the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of your patients.
Every time I witness a patient’s condition improve due to the therapy I provided, it feels incredible. This is one of my favorite aspects of the job!
2. You’ll Earn a Respectable Salary
While you won’t be bringing in a million dollars per year as a respiratory therapist, you can expect to earn a comfortable living. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for respiratory therapists is approximately $61,830.
However, this number may vary depending on factors such as experience, education, and location. Not to mention, RTs often have the opportunity to earn overtime pay or work additional shifts, which can significantly boost their earnings.
3. Respiratory Therapists are in High Demand
Respiratory therapy is a growing profession that is expected to continue to experience high demand in the coming years.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for respiratory therapists is projected to grow by 23% by 2030. This is a much faster growth rate than the average for all occupations.
4. Respiratory Therapists are Essential Workers
As an essential worker, you can take comfort in knowing that your job is vital to the functioning of society, even during difficult times.
Respiratory therapists play an important role in the healthcare system and are often needed during public health emergencies, such as global pandemics.
5. The Job is Never Boring
No two days are the same for respiratory therapists. You’ll constantly be treating new types of patients, implementing new therapeutic modalities, and working with different members of the healthcare team.
This variety makes the job as an RT both interesting and exciting.
6. You Can Work in Various Settings
One of the great things about being a respiratory therapist is that you have the opportunity to work in a variety of settings.
From hospitals and clinics to home healthcare and long-term care facilities, there are many places where RTs can find employment.
Additionally, respiratory therapists are needed in all areas of the hospital. Some examples include:
- Inpatient (medical-surgical)
- Emergency room (ER)
- Intensive care unit (ICU)
- Operating room (OR)
- Neonatal ICU (NICU)
- Labor and delivery
- Pulmonary rehabilitation
Therefore, if you’re someone who likes to switch things up, you can easily transfer to a new department or facility.
7. There are Endless Learning Opportunities
If you’re someone who enjoys learning, then a career in respiratory therapy is perfect for you. Even after being in the field for several years, I feel like I learn something new each day.
Evidence-based practice is constantly evolving. As a result, respiratory therapists must stay up-to-date on the latest research and developments to provide the best possible care for their patients.
8. You’ll Earn Medical Credentials
After passing the board exams to become a respiratory therapist, you’ll be able to sign the letters “RRT” after your name. This stands for registered respiratory therapist and is the primary credential for RTs in the United States.
This credential is recognized nationwide and is a great way to display your competence as a qualified medical professional.
9. You Can Specialize
Speaking of credentials, respiratory therapists have the opportunity to earn additional credentials that allow them to specialize in specific patient populations or modalities. The specialty credentials offered by the NBRC include the following:
- Adult Critical Care Specialist (ACCS)
- Neonatal/Pediatric Specialist (NPS)
- Sleep Disorders Specialist (SDS)
- Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT)
- Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT)
Specializing in a specific area may help you attain a better job, which often commands a higher salary.
10. You Will Be Well-Respected
As a respiratory therapist, you will be respected by both your patients and your colleagues. RTs are an important part of the healthcare team and are often looked to for their expert knowledge when managing patients with lung diseases.
This is especially true in critically ill patients (e.g., those receiving mechanical ventilation).
11. You Can Work Anywhere
As previously mentioned, respiratory therapists are in high demand. This means that you will have the option of working anywhere in the United States.
Whether you want to live in a big city or a small town, there will most likely be plenty of job opportunities available. Remember, though, that you must apply for a new license for each state where you wish to practice.
12. You Have the Opportunity to Travel
If you enjoy traveling and seeing new places, you can use your skills as a respiratory therapist to do just that. There are many companies that hire “travel respiratory therapists.”
These positions allow you to work in various locations for a set period of time.
After that, you can choose to move on to another location or return home. This is a great way to explore different parts of the country (or even the world).
Not to mention, travel respiratory therapists typically earn a higher salary and a more comprehensive benefits package than those working in a traditional setting.
13. Your Schedule Will Be Flexible
Flexibility is another great perk of being a respiratory therapist. In the hospital setting, 36 hours is typically considered to be a workload. This means that RTs are only required to work three days per week, which leaves plenty of time for other activities.
Of course, there are always the occasional times when you may have to work overtime or be on-call. But for the most part, you’ll have plenty of flexibility in your schedule.
Additionally, many respiratory therapists work part-time or PRN (i.e., as needed). This can be a great option if you’re looking for even more flexibility in your schedule.
14. Respiratory Therapists are Part of a Team
As a respiratory therapist, you’ll be part of a team of dedicated healthcare professionals. This typically includes doctors, nurses, other RTs, and various support staff.
Working as a team is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job, as you’ll be able to collaborate with others to provide the best possible care for your patients. It’s also a great way to learn from others and build lasting relationships outside of work.
15. Respiratory Therapists Save Lives
Lastly, respiratory therapists are one of the few medical professionals who regularly have the opportunity to save lives.
RTs are first responders to emergencies, such as when a patient stops breathing or goes into cardiac arrest.
In these situations, every second counts, and RTs are trained to act quickly and efficiently. Even if a patient is not in critical condition, the care that RTs provide can greatly improve the quality of life for those suffering from respiratory diseases.
Top Cons of Being a Respiratory Therapist
While there are many great things about the field of respiratory therapy, there are also some potential drawbacks that you should be aware of. Here are the top cons of being a respiratory therapist:
- You Have to Work Long Hours
- It’s a Physically Demanding Job
- The Job Can Be Stressful
- You May Have to Work Weekends and Holidays
- Respiratory Therapists are Front-Line Workers
- You’re at Risk of Being Exposed to Pathogens
- Respiratory Therapy Programs are Competitive
- Respiratory Therapy School is Challenging
- The Board Exams are Difficult to Pass
- You Have to Maintain Your License and Credentials
- Limited Advancement Opportunities
- You’ll Have to Deal with Mucus
- You’ll Have to Draw Blood Samples
- You May Experience Burnout
- You Have to Witness Death
1. You Have to Work Long Hours
One of the biggest downsides of being a respiratory therapist is that you’ll most likely be required to work long hours. Like nurses and other healthcare workers, RTs are required to work 12-hours shifts.
This is a long time to be on your feet and can be quite draining, both physically and mentally. This is especially true when working multiple shifts in a row, as exhaustion can quickly set in.
2. It’s a Physically Demanding Job
As previously mentioned, respiratory therapists are required to be on their feet for long hours at a time. This can be physically draining on your entire body. Therefore, the job requires a lot of stamina and endurance.
RTs also sometimes have to lift patients and heavy equipment. This means that a certain level of physical strength is also required to work in this career.
3. The Job Can Be Stressful
Most jobs in the medical field come with a certain amount of stress. A career as a respiratory therapist is no different.
You’ll have to deal with sick patients, worried family members, and the pressure of knowing that a patient’s life is in your hands. This can be a lot to handle, and it’s not for everyone.
Additionally, RTs usually have to care for several patients a once. Therefore, time management is an essential skill to have. Managing an overly full workload can be quite challenging and can lead to added levels of stress.
4. You May Have to Work Weekends and Holidays
While respiratory therapists typically have a lot of flexibility in their schedule, working weekends and holidays is often required in this career. This can be especially hard if you have a family.
In general, no one wants to work on Christmas Day. However, just because it’s a holiday or weekend doesn’t mean people stop getting sick.
It’s your duty as a medical professional to be there for your patients, even if it means missing out on time with your family and friends.
5. Respiratory Therapists are Frontline Workers
Respiratory therapists are frontline workers, meaning they’re essential in times of crisis, such as during a global health emergency.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of respiratory therapists, as they were first in line to treat patients with the virus.
This not only puts them at risk of exposure but also means they have to work long hours in difficult and dangerous conditions.
6. You’re at Risk of Being Exposed to Pathogens
As previously mentioned, respiratory therapists often treat patients who are infected with contagious diseases. Some examples include:
While most RTs take precautions to avoid being infected, such as wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), there’s always a risk of exposure.
7. Respiratory Therapy Programs are Competitive
If you’re interested in becoming a respiratory therapist, you’ll need to enroll and graduate from an accredited respiratory therapy program.
Unfortunately, these programs can be quite competitive.
There are several admissions requirements that you’ll need to meet, such as prerequisite coursework and a minimum GPA. Additionally, many programs require candidates to submit observation hours and letters of recommendation.
8. Respiratory Therapy School is Challenging
While the admissions process for respiratory therapy school can be difficult, the actual coursework inside the program is no easy feat.
You’ll need to study hard to pass all of your classes. Not to mention, you must do so while balancing exam preparation with homework, projects, and clinical rotations.
So, is respiratory therapy school hard? Yes. But is it impossible? Absolutely not. If you’re willing to put in the work, you can be successful as a student, which will set you up for success in your future career.
9. The Board Exams are Difficult to Pass
After graduating from an accredited respiratory therapy program, you’ll need to pass two separate board exams to earn credentials and become licensed.
It’s safe to say that these exams are no walk in the park. In fact, most students would agree that they’re objectively difficult. However, our study guide and materials have helped thousands of students prepare for (and pass) the exams.
10. You Have to Maintain Your License and Credentials
To continue practicing as a respiratory therapist, you’ll need to maintain your license and credentials. Depending on your state, this may require completing continuing education units (CEUs) or taking recertification exams.
It’s important to stay on top of your CEU requirements and renew your license before it expires.
Otherwise, you won’t be able to practice as an RT and will have to go through the process of passing the board exams and getting credentialed all over again.
11. Limited Advancement Opportunities
While there are some advancement options available for respiratory therapists, the opportunities are limited compared to other medical professions.
For example, nurses can become nurse practitioners or certified registered nurse anesthetists. Unfortunately, there are no comparable roles for respiratory therapists.
However, some RTs may be able to advance in their career by taking on management or leadership positions within their organization. But the fact remains that there are fewer advancement opportunities available for RTs than for other medical professionals.
12. You’ll Have to Deal with Mucus
If you’re grossed out about the thought of mucus, then respiratory therapy may not be the right career choice for you.
Respiratory therapists regularly perform airway suctioning, which is a procedure that involves removing mucus from a patient’s airway. This is not the most pleasant task, but it is an important part of the job.
13. You’ll Have to Draw Blood Samples
In addition to suctioning mucus, respiratory therapists also regularly use a syringe to draw a sample of blood from a patient’s artery.
This is known as an arterial blood gas (ABG), which is a test that measures the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
Some people are turned off by the thought of having to stick a patient to collect a blood sample. However, this is a relatively easy procedure to learn, and it’s an essential part of the job.
14. You May Experience Burnout
Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It’s a common problem among healthcare workers, and respiratory therapists are no exception.
A poll conducted by the AARC found that nearly 80% of respiratory therapists admitted to some level of burnout. This is likely due to the demanding nature of the job, which can be emotionally and mentally draining.
If you’re considering a career in respiratory therapy, it’s important to be aware of the risk of burnout. Be sure to take care of yourself both physically and mentally.
15. You Have to Witness Death
One of the most unfortunate aspects of being a respiratory therapist is that you will have to witness the end of a patient’s life. This is an inevitable part of the job, and it is something that you will have to learn to deal with.
While it’s never easy to lose a patient, the silver lining is that you play a role in making their last days as comfortable as possible. If this is something you’re unable to deal with, then you may want to reconsider a career in respiratory therapy.
As you can see, respiratory therapy is a demanding but very rewarding career. If you’re considering this profession, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons carefully before making a decision.
There’s no denying that a career as a respiratory therapist is amazing in so many ways. However, it’s also important to be realistic about the challenges you may face.
Do your research and talk to other respiratory therapists to get a better understanding of what the job is really like.
This will help you make an informed decision about whether or not it’s the right career for you. Good luck, and thanks for reading!
John Landry, BS, RRT
John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.
- “What Is An RT?” AARC, 12 Sept. 2019, www.aarc.org/careers/what-is-an-rt.
- “The National Board for Respiratory Care.” The National Board for Respiratory Care, www.nbrc.org. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
- “Respiratory Therapists : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 May 2022, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm.