The Clock is Ticking: Is It Ever Too Late to Go Back to School?

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The respiratory care profession is quickly moving toward a bachelor’s degree entry, and while people in the profession today who hold an associate’s degree will still be able to enjoy career-long employment, it’s clear that getting ahead will require a return to the classroom for many.

Is it ever too late to go back to school for an advanced degree? We asked AARC members who earned a higher degree after many years in the profession to share their stories.

Opening doors

Janae Zachary, BS, RRT, is an RT program director who will graduate with her masters of professional studies in organization leadership degree in December of this year and she believes both it, and her bachelor’s degree, have opened many doors for her, career-wise.

“I feel lucky that I get to apply my acquired knowledge and skills in my leadership role and get to teach others and share my passion for respiratory care,” she said. “For those that want to excel beyond a floor therapist, a higher educational degree is what they will need to prepare them for their future job roles and goals.”

Helena Midkiff, MSHCM, RRT, RRT-NPS, RPFT, AE-C, went back to school to earn her master’s degree in health care management after 19 years on the job in a large pulmonary diagnostics lab and says it has allowed her to move into the RT educational arena, first as an instructor at a local community college and now as director of clinical education at a four-year university.

“Without my graduate degree, I would not have this opportunity to teach in a four-year program,” she said. “I’m very grateful for the foresight I had, knowing that I needed a change, a new challenge.”

Nadya Khoja, BS, RRT, is a program director at a community college who always wanted to go back for a higher degree. She finally made the move two years ago. She’ll finish up her master’s in health sciences with a concentration in leadership next semester and believes the degree will bode well for her future.

It was worth the wait, says Kohja. “We all know that life happens, and things fall into place when it’s the right time.”

Lora Mercier, RRT, RPFT, has been in respiratory therapy for 28 years now and her associate degree has served her well during nine years on the inpatient side and another 19 in diagnostics. But when her own children went off to college, she decided it was time for mom to follow suit.

“I also had changed jobs and my current place of employment is an academic center that places value on education,” she said. “I will finish my degree in one year, and I may consider teaching or industry.”

But even if she stays where she is today, she believes the degree will help her excel in her role as a lead therapist and preceptor to new employees.

Meeting requirements

Tom Cahill, MS, RRT, RRT-NPS, EMT-P, decided to go back to school to earn his master’s degree because the hospital he was working in required a graduate degree for anyone who wanted to advance above the department management level. Once he enrolled, he was eligible for the kind of promotion he was seeking, and today he has moved into upper management on the hospital system level, where he has responsibility for five divisions across five hospitals.

For him, going after the master’s degree was a no-brainer. “It was an easy decision based on the requirements of the hospital and my career path. I had already started on the leadership path and wished to continue.” But Cahill emphasizes the degree only opens doors. It’s up to the individual to go through them.

Yvonne George, DMin, MEd, RRT, got her first advanced degree — a bachelor’s in business administration — after 19 years in the profession. At the time she had taken a job overseeing tobacco prevention and asthma education at a local school district and knew the degree would position her for advancement.

Her BBA ended up opening the door to a position working in simulation at a local community college, which fed into her decision to go a step future and earn a master’s degree in education. That degree led to her current position as program director of respiratory care at a state university. But she her educational journey didn’t end there. “I later completed a doctor of ministry for personal enrichment,” George said.

Julie Smith, BS, RRT, earned her bachelor’s degree in health care management after 15 years in the profession to increase her knowledge on the management side and boost her salary. After working as a supervisor in her RT department, though, she took her additional education into the pulmonary rehabilitation setting, helping to start a new program at her hospital.

After 18 months as the supervisor for that program she moved to another hospital to open and run the daily operations of another PR program and says she loves what she does. “I have a passion to help patients learn how to live as long as they can with less symptoms from their lung disease,” Smith said.

Gene Macogay, MSc, RRT, RRT-ACCS, was in the field for about three and a half years when he earned his bachelor’s in health care administration. The degree allowed him to take on a job as an adjunct clinical instructor for a local RT program, and when a full time faculty position became available a couple of years later he decided to go for his MSc in respiratory care leadership to get the job.

Today he is director of clinical education for the program and believes the degree will continue to work in his favor as his program goes through some exciting changes. “It has also opened the door to move toward teaching for our soon to be offered BSRT program,” he said.

Micheline Plantada, MSRC, RRT, RRT-NPS, pursued her bachelor’s degree in respiratory care with an eye toward becoming an adjunct faculty member as well. She held that position while maintaining her bedside and flight therapy positions, but eventually used the degree as a steppingstone to a supervisory position and then director of respiratory position in her hospital. From there she earned her master’s degree in respiratory care leadership.

“Not only did this open more opportunities, but it was instrumental in increasing my income,” Plantada said. She is now in her last semester of a master of health administration program and believes that degree will help her improve her performance in her current leadership position at a large children’s hospital and pave the way towards a role in the executive leadership arena.

Big boosts

Lorraine Bertuola, MBA, RRT, has earned both a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and an MBA since entering the profession and says they have both helped to advance her career. But the bachelor’s degree, by far, provided the biggest boost.

“I wanted to move up to a managerial position,” she said. “This helped me achieve my goal.” She chose to earn her MBA because many of the people at the company she worked for at the time had master’s degrees or even doctorates. When she returned to a hospital manager position, she decided to make it happen.

Kelly Cresci, MS, MBA, RRT, RRT-NPS, entered the profession back in 1987 and worked as a staff therapist until 2004, when she took on a clinical educator role. She went back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in 2009 in order to assume an administrative team leader position, and found herself back in the classroom a couple years later, working toward a master’s degree in organizational management. An MBA followed in 2017.

“The MBA program was offered by my organization as a collaboration with a local university and I was able to earn this degree at no cost to me, so it was a no brainer,” she said. “Earning these degrees has helped me advance in my organization.” Today she is director of major research at her facility.

Brandon Kuehne, MBA, RRT, RRT-NPS, RPFT, knew he wanted to prepare himself for a leadership position back in the early 2000’s when he was working as a staff RT in a PICU. Since so many therapists in his department already had a bachelor’s degree, he set his sights on an MBA.

“The thought here was to differentiate myself from others when a leadership opportunity came available as our hospital was in the process of positioning itself for national prominence,” he said.

It took some patience — he continued to work at the staff level for another six years after graduating with his MBA — but continued organizational growth eventually led to a leadership opportunity in the NICU and he got it. “The education I had received coupled with my bedside experience and extra credentialing really allowed me to interview well for that opening.” In 2018, he received a promotion to a program manager position in a neonatal network, and now he is working on his doctorate.

Susan Wynn, MSM, BSBA, BSRT, RRT, entered the field in 1983 with a degree from an RT certificate program. It was a time when few therapists in her area of the country had any college at all. She received a promotion to supervisor as soon as she finished the program.

She went on to earn her AS degree, a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and a master’s degree, the latter because she was department director by then and the hospital asked directors to earn a master’s. In 2016, she decided to pay it forward by going backward just a bit to align with the AARC’s goal to promote the BSRT in the profession. “Indiana had one school that had a completely online program for RRTs to accomplish this and I just completed that goal in December 2019,” she said.

Climbing the ladder

Shannon Childs, MBA, RRT, moved forward on her educational path by a desire to teach. After three years in the field she earned her BS degree in order to take part in clinical education at her facility, and she returned to the classroom eight years later to earn an MBA, which led to her current position as director of clinical education for a school program.

“I’m so glad that I made those choices and ‘climbed the ladder,’” she said. “I love teaching!”

Cindy Beebe, MHA, RRT, RRT-ACCS, RRT-NPS, worked for about 10 years before earning her BS degree in 2001. She received her master’s degree five years later.

She believes all the hard work has paid off in terms of career advancement. “I am now manager of the respiratory department at U Health in Salt Lake City, UT,” she said.

Karen Renaldi, MEd, BSRC, RRT, received her BSRC in 1989 and went back to school in 1999 for her master’s degree in education. She graduated in 2000 and it led to the position she has held since then.

“In December of 2000 I accepted a position as a clinical instructor and I am still in that position today,” she said.

Rena Laliberte, BSRC, RRT, was inspired to pursue her bachelor’s degree after many years on the job by her department director at the time, who told her it was not only good for professionalism in respiratory care, but good for her as well, if she wanted to advance within her profession.

As she was finishing up her last courses, a new department director came on board who had the innovative idea to create clinical specialist positions. Her new degree landed her the clinical education specialist position, and she says it has been amazing.

“I teach everyone in the hospital, from RT students and therapists, to nurses, residents, fellows, and staff physicians,” she said. “I also participate in research that brings revenue to our department and lecture at our state society conferences.”

An investment worth making

Going back to school years — or even decades — after graduating the first time can seem daunting to therapists who are busy living their lives as working adults. But as these therapists show, the pay off in career advancement is well worth the investment in time and energy.

Learn more about degree advancement for respiratory therapists here.