Going Back to School for an Associate’s Degree in Respiratory Care

respiratory care students

With all the talk lately about the need for more respiratory therapists with bachelor’s degrees, you would think our profession is devoid of people with this level of education.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, but in many cases, folks who can put a “BS” or “BA” after their names didn’t get that bachelor’s degree in respiratory care. They got it in another discipline, and for many, the bachelor’s degree actually came before the associate’s degree in respiratory care.

So have these bachelor’s degrees — and the extra credit hours in liberal arts and other broad-based learning courses that came with them — really made a difference in their careers as RTs?

We went to the AARC Specialty Section discussion forums to find out.

Here are just a few sound bites from the therapists who replied to our informal survey —

Having a bachelor’s has certainly helped me to be a better clinician. The interaction of different body systems and medications was easier to understand having a well-rounded science background. I think having increased exposure to research has helped me not only in the thought process of problem solving, but also in interpreting and applying evidence-based medicine appropriately.
— Laura Hartman, BS, RRT-NPS, RRT-ACCS, BS in biology

Critical thinking, language, and mathematic skills are very transferrable. There is also some cultural benefit to having been in a higher education environment with respect to communication with other professionals. I think the bachelor degree was very helpful in my career, and continues to be so.
— Michael Holbert, BA, RRT, RPFT, BA in political science/international studies

I was able to improve my speaking and writing skills while enrolled as an undergraduate. I can also say that I improved my critical thinking skills as well, not to speak of the enhanced understanding of human relations and interaction.
— Larry Alles, BA, RRT, BA in accounting

The degree in psychology, specifically, has helped me understand and be more empathetic to my patients, coworkers, and leaders. The bachelor’s degree increased my professional ability to communicate and to advance my career. I have been both a staff educator and a neonatal and pediatric coordinator, and I believe having my bachelor’s helped me in obtaining those positions. I have been asked multiple times when I am going to obtain my master’s degree by leadership. I take this as a huge compliment, and because I already have my bachelor’s, I am one step closer than a person just graduating with an AAS.
— Stephanie Ellis, BS, RRT, BS in psychology

Having a BS gave me a better background in the sciences, as I originally was a microbiology major and studied other subjects, such as geology.
— Anne M. Hamilton, BS, RRT, BS in biology

I believe that my bachelor’s degree provided a firm foundation that allowed me to critically analyze situations and understand that there are many ways to view challenges and problems in a way that no associate’s degree has time to. My studies in philosophy and psychology really paid off in working with patients, staff, students, and administrators. My message would be: A BS is no BS. Whether you get the degree before or after your ASRT, you will find your suite of skills greatly enhanced, with expanded career options.
— James Fink, PhD, RRT-NPS, FCCP, BA in philosophy, MS in adult education, PhD in pharmaceutical innovation

Having a BS helps to develop a number of skill sets needed to communicate with our fellow physician and nursing colleagues. These skills range from public speaking to understanding different learning styles to helping to educate our patients, clinicians, and students. Having a BS has helped my career advance at a much faster pace. Soon after starting as an RT a mentor helped encourage me to start a master’s program. This has led to a number of opportunities, such as a promotion to a senior therapist position within the first three years and now a clinical supervisor position within the first five years of my career.
— Daniel Gochenour, MSc, RRT-NPS, RRT-ACCS, AE-C, BS in exercise, sports and health education; MSc in respiratory care leadership

I feel I have a deeper knowledge level on pathophysiology, which helps me with pulmonary/systemic patient assessments and selecting appropriate therapeutic interventions, especially for the “complex” patient, and improved interaction with physicians. I have spent half of my respiratory career as a clinical educator, a role I love!
Diane Brenessel, EdD, RRT-ACCS, AE-C, BS in zoology, EdD in education

Having a bachelor’s degree did not make me a better therapist. I worked with many RRTs, CRTs and a few OJTs that I would have been privileged to have care for my family or myself. I do believe that having a bachelor’s degree made me less intimidated when I advocated for my patients. It also made it easier to participate in multidisciplinary rounds. It made the difference when I applied to be a clinical instructor and later when I moved into pulmonary rehab. During the interviewing process for both positions the competition was stiff. I was told I received the position I had applied for because I had a bachelor’s degree.
— Julie St Amant, BS, RRT, BA in graphic design

Having both my BS degrees helped me to be a better RT when I began my career. I found, at 25 years old, I was more mature. It was easy to relate to and work with patients and all the members of the health care team, especially physicians. It also allowed me to move on to a MS in industrial relations/human resource management from New York Institute of Technology in 1993 and become a director of respiratory services.
Theodore L. Nilsson, MS, RT, RRT, BS in liberal arts/biology, BS in cardio-respiratory sciences, MS in industrial relations/human resource management

Having a bachelor’s degree before going to RT school made being an RT student easier. I’d already learned how I learn and how to succeed in college. My humanities background hardwired me with critical thinking skills that are applicable at the bedside as well as in designing and implementing quality and process improvement initiatives. My humanities background also taught me how to communicate well both in person and in writing. Being able to communicate clearly and effectively in a complex multidisciplinary environment is fundamental to success, especially in the large academic hospitals I have spent my career working in.
— Lisa Wright, MA, RRT-NPS, BA and MA in classical languages

Having my bachelor’s degree made RT school somewhat a breeze and quickly placed me in a leadership role among my peers. When I started working for my current organization the trend continued and I was able to advance to the PICU, team lead position, transport team, and now the manager of the transport team. The only reason I am qualified to be a “nurse manager” at my facility is because I have a bachelor level degree and I report to a nurse. Without my BS I would not be in the position or in as good a financial position as I am in now. Although I have several excellent associate degree level colleagues, I definitely feel that those with bachelor’s are more likely to be respected by fellow health care workers.
— Brandon Dudik, BS, RRT-NPS, C-NPT, AE-C, BS in organismal biology and chemistry

Having a BS degree opens your analytical thinking channels and prepares you to adapt to change. I think it prepared me to think on my feet, assess better, and to speak up for improved care for my patients. I advanced to a rehab therapist because of this (got off the night shift), advanced my career steadily, and it introduced me to home care — and I’ve never looked back. It also prepared me to achieve my master of science degree.
Keith Scheuing, MS, RRT, BS in biology, MS in safety sciences

My first manager’s position was one where they were looking for someone who had a strong education background, along with the necessary critical care experience, which I was fortunate to have early on in my RT career. Without the bachelor’s and master’s degrees I seriously doubt I would have had that first management opportunity.
— Dwight L. Austin, MEd, RRT, BA and MA in music, MEd in education

I strongly believe my bachelors background helped me excel in the RC program for a variety of reasons. I had a strong background in the biological sciences that boosted my strengths in anatomy/physiology as well as physics. In addition, I feel that having a four year education made me a better person as well as practitioner due to the variety of liberal arts courses I was required to master. In addition, I went on to gain my master’s degree in health science with an emphasis in leadership, graduating from Saint Francis University, Loretto, PA, in August of 2015.
— Kendrah L. Beiler, MHSc, RRT, RCP, BS and MHSc in health science

From the time I started working as an RT I was always involved in department committees. I challenged my boss for new opportunities and he introduced me to other departments where I would work one or two days a month in areas like safety, performance analytics, and Baldridge preparation. In time I became a supervisor and then a manager, along the way always feeling that my business degree and my respiratory degree complimented one another. I have since returned to school and completed my MBA.
Kathy Sebastian, MBA, RRT, BA and MBA in business administration

I really can’t tell that having my BS has added anything to my career. Had I been interested in “moving up the ladder,” I believe it would have been a huge benefit. I didn’t have those aspirations.
— Paige Plummer, BS, RRT, BS in mathematics

I feel that my BS degree has helped me as a clinician due to the medical physiology and biochemistry and more in depth understanding of all disease processes. The completion of my undergrad degree also helped as I moved into management.
Bryan Ellis, BS, RRT-NPS, CPFT, RPSGT, BS in chemistry and biology

In terms of gaining a position when I graduated it really didn’t do anything for me because the program wasn’t structured to add clinical components above and beyond the AS degree — and very few of those existed. However, the knowledge I have from my business degree and prior experience in restaurant management were the keys to moving into a department director position.
— Diane Baltzell, BA, RRT, BA in business administration/economics and marketing