Advanced Degrees in RT: Why Therapists Get Them, How They Pay Off

Advanced Degrees in RT:

Advancing the educational requirements to be an RT has made the news over the past year. The AARC called for a bachelor’s degree entry level in a revised position statement released in January. The Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care followed with a proposed revision to its accreditation standards that would require all newly created RT educational programs to award a bachelor’s degree.

While any new educational standards would not affect currently credentialed and licensed RTs, many therapists have already pursued higher degrees on their own. Why do they do it, and perhaps even more importantly, what do they get out of the process?

We turned to members of the AARC Specialty Section discussion forums to find out. A brief glimpse at what some of them had to say may help inform your decision if you’re still on the fence about going back to school —

Why they do it

The first question we asked was, “Why did you decide to continue your education beyond the entry level associate’s degree in RT?” As you might expect, the reasons were vast and varied.

For some therapists, it was all about getting a better job or a new kind of job that required an advanced degree —

“After working as a clinical RT for approximately 15 years, I began thinking of moving my way into management,” says Stacy Hubbard, MHA/Ed, BSRT, RRT, transport and communication center manager at Dayton Children’s Hospital in Dayton, OH. ”With this in mind, I knew I would need to obtain at least my bachelor’s degree, if not a master’s.

“I was an AS graduate who became a clinical preceptor for students from Madison Area Technical College — the program that I graduated from,” says Jeff Anderson, MA, RRT, director of clinical education for the RC program at Boise State University in Boise, ID. “I enjoyed the student interaction and was told that I was a great preceptor. This motivated me to get a BS degree to at least begin a career in education.”

“I wanted to advance into a management track at work and I felt that an advanced degree would help me become more marketable,” says Tom Cahill, MS, RRT-NPS, FAARC, clinical specialist at Philips HealthCare. “My master’s degree was a requirement for advancement.”

“In 2003, after spending several years in a management role, I attended Faulkner University and completed my bachelor’s in business administration,” says Ed Goodwin, BBA, RRT, director of respiratory therapy at the JSU School of Health Professions and Wellness in Jacksonville, AL. ”I found that I was often having to work with administrators that had little or no clinical experience. They spoke ‘finance/operations’ and I spoke ‘respiratory.’ My BBA helped me bridge that gap and I believe made me a more successful manager.”

“I was wanting to become the RT department educator,” says Betty-Pauline Polanco, MEd, RRT, director of clinical education at Pima Medical Institute (PMI) in Chula Vista, CA. “I was doing quite a bit of clinical teaching for the community college and in-servicing for my department. Without my BA, I would not be in my current position as a DCE, and without my MEd I would not have been a part of the research, development, and program administration of the BSRT online program at PMI.”

“When I applied for the education coordinator job it required a BS in RT or science,” says Mary Bina, BS, RRT-NPS, an education coordinator for respiratory care at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, TX, who is now working on her master’s degree in adult learning as well. “A requirement for the educator job was to obtain a master’s degree of my choosing. Choosing adult learning was a great choice for me as a clinical educator of staff RTs.”

For others, the motivation was more internal; in other words, they did it for themselves —

“I always wanted an advanced degree, and after I paid off my children’s last college loan I decided it was time for me to do it,” says Kelly Switzler, RRT-NPS, CPFT, clinical coordinator at Sutter Roseville Medical Center in Roseville, CA. “I got my degree in June of 2015 just before my grandchildren were born.”

“I really went back to school for an advanced degree because I am a respiratory care practitioner that is invested in my career,” says Matthew Walker, RRT-NPS, a pediatric clinical coordinator at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, CA, who is pursuing his BSRC degree from Boise State. “Whether it is advanced patient management in the acute care/ICU, teaching strategies to provide clinical education, or management tactics in order to support my staff, I have learned and gained far more than I ever could have imagined.”

“I have always been intrinsically motivated in regard to education,” says Marby McKinney, MEd, RRT-NPS, AE-C, RC program director at Alvin College in Alvin, TX. ”In fact, I am back in school currently working on my doctorate degree. I am a first generation college student and I wanted to go all the way.”
And for others still, it was never a matter of “advancing” their education. They decided the bachelor’s degree was the thing to go after from the outset —

“I did not go for an associate’s degree — I took undergraduate courses and then went for my BS degree in RT,” says David Wolfe, MSEd, RRT-SDS, RPSGT, from Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, NY. “After that, I went for my master’s degree in education because I wanted to teach in an RT program.”

“I had a bachelor’s degree in respiratory care from the Medical College of Georgia,” says Albert Oluwasegun, MPH, RRT-NPS, RRT-ACCS, a senior RRT at King Fahad Medical City in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “After six years of working, I realized I was interested in research and teaching, so I pursued a master’s of public health. It was the best decision I have ever made for my career.”

“I actually had a bachelor’s degree in science that helped me fast track my career into respiratory,” says Julian Lewiecki, MSA, RRT, director of the Lakeland Center for Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine in Niles, MI. ”There is a strong push for nurses to receive their bachelor’s around here…if RTs are going to stay relevant in the field of medicine then I see this as a future necessity.”

How it has paid off

The second question on our list was, “How do you believe acquiring this advanced degree has helped you in your career?”

The vast majority of the therapists who answered our informal poll reported benefits from the degree —

“My coursework and master’s project better qualified me for the job I already have and love,” says Pamela J. Neuenfeldt, MPH, RRT, LRT, research project manager in the Lung & Sleep Health Clinic at the HealthPartners Institute for Education and Research in St. Paul, MN. “I believe people treat me better and have a higher regard for what I do because I have those letters behind my name.”

“Acquiring my baccalaureate degree has helped me become one of the clinical educators at my current facility,” says Christopher Price, BS, RRT-ACCS, a clinical educator for the pulmonary medicine department at Wentworth-Douglas Hospital in Dover, NH, who is currently pursuing a master of science in respiratory care degree as well. “All of the clinical nurse educators have or are pursuing their master’s degree.  Having this advanced degree will allow me to be on the same playing field as my colleagues in this department.”

“My advanced degrees have provided so much opportunity for learning, growth — and career advancement,” says Michelle Moore, MEd, RRT-NPS, from Gannon University in Erie, PA. “After only eight years in the profession, I climbed the ladder from entry level therapist, to a senior respiratory therapist and cardiac respiratory specialist, to a director of clinical education, and am now a program director and associate professor.”

“I have taken a promotion since graduation and am developing a COPD Navigator program for my organization,” says Buffy Chapman, BA, RRT, from Lexington Medical Center in Lexington, SC. “Additionally, my education provided greater understanding of many of the situations we deal with when interacting with patients and families. My degree has made me more well-rounded and is an indication of my willingness to work hard and accomplish goals.”

“Eighteen months after obtaining my degree I was able to apply for my current position, which required a bachelor’s degree,” says Darlene Boggs, BS, RRT, respiratory care manager at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center in Cleveland, OH. “If I hadn’t advanced my education, then I would never have been able to advance my career to where I am today.”

“My degree allowed my current employer to hire me at a higher pay scale than non-baccalaureate employees, and over the years it has allowed me to advance to jobs that are not traditional,” says William Demaray, BS, RRT, cystic fibrosis respiratory specialist and sepsis coordinator at University Hospitals in Albuquerque, MN.

“My knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and disease pathology is stronger,” says Karl Kaminski, BSRT, RRT-NPS, manager of respiratory care, neonatal-pediatrics, at Betty H. Cameron Women’s and Children’s Hospital at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, NC. “I feel well-prepared for a graduate program — if I can just invent a time machine — and hopefully have some credibility when discussing the importance of career advancement with my staff.”

But for a small minority of our respondents, the answer to that question was less positive —

Miranda S. Bradley, BSRT, RRT-NPS, went back to get her BSRT degree with an eye toward pursuing a career as a physician’s assistant but ended up frustrated that the program did not prepare her to immediately apply to PA school. “Nearly every RT bachelor completion program in RT did not meet these requirements without basically an additional one year of full time on campus college classes,” says the neonatal-pediatric cardiopulmonary transport co-coordinator at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. While she says she’s doing exciting work there, it’s not where she expected to be at this point in her career.

“Unfortunately, since I got my BS degree I have found it more difficult to get hired,” says Micheline Menendez Plantada, BSRC, RRT-NPS. “The more experience I have and more degrees and certifications I earn, the less job offers I get in my area. I have been told I am over qualified on several occasions.” Still, she isn’t ready to give up on the value of education. Plantada is currently working on her master’s degree in respiratory care in the hopes of obtaining a job in respiratory care education.

The bottom line: While an advanced degree is not 100% guaranteed to boost your career, for the vast majority of people it opens doors to new opportunities and makes them better at the jobs they already have. As the profession moves to a baccalaureate entry level, those who have already taken the plunge and gone back to school to earn their BS degree or higher will definitely be ahead of the game.