Moving the Profession Forward: The Master’s Degree

Master's Degree

The AARC has set a goal stating 80 percent of respiratory therapists should have, or be working toward, a bachelor’s degree by 2020. The goal is part of the association’s program to move the profession forward and is expected to greatly enhance the ability of RTs to do everything from manage departments to deliver care at the bedside.

Should therapists aim even higher? We conducted an informal survey on the AARC Specialty Section Discussion Lists to find out who is getting master’s degrees and why. Sixty-three members responded. Here’s a summary of the key points —

Who is getting them

As you might expect, the vast majority of RTs getting master’s degrees work in either respiratory care management or education.

Among the 29 respondents who fell into the management category in our poll, most were working as department directors of respiratory care and often related departments as well.

More unique positions in this group included clinical value optimization facilitator, corporate respiratory care QA manager, business manager for critical care services, and regional manager of a critical care division at a respiratory care equipment manufacturer.

One respondent noted he has been able to use his MBA to start his own consulting firm as well.

Educators made up 28 of the replies. Program directors (PDs), directors of clinical education (DCEs), and professors and instructors in traditional educational programs comprised the majority of this group.

A few reported working as clinical educators in hospitals or hospital organizations as well. This includes one respondent is employed as a clinical operations education consultant for 16 service lines at a 22-hospital corporation. Another is the manager of educational standards for a large air medical transport program.

The remaining six respondents were working in either supervisory roles or as RT clinicians, but most had their eye on moving up the career ladder soon.

Why they are getting them

The survey suggests people have many reasons for pursuing their master’s degree. A personal quest for knowledge, the need to improve their skills, and even the hope of setting a good example for their children were all cited.

But for most people, the driving force is a desire to get ahead on the job.

Has it paid off in career advancement?

The vast majority of our respondents say the answer is yes. For some it’s been the number one reason why they were able to get or even keep the jobs they have today.


That is especially true for the educators in the group, because many respiratory care programs today prefer or even require a master’s degree, particularly for the DCE and PD positions.

“The master’s helped me to obtain my DCE position at the school I began teaching at and eventually the PD role after 12 years as the DCE,” said Marybeth Emmerth, MS, RRT, CPT, associate professor and program director for the respiratory therapy program at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, WV.

She believes the degree has also given her the credibility she needs to encourage her graduates to follow in her footsteps and pursue a master’s of their own.

Helen Grim, MS, RRT, respiratory care clinical coordinator at Mott Community College in Flint, MI, says she decided to go after her master’s because she could see the profession pushing forward with the bachelor’s degree entry and knew she’d need a degree the next level up to keep her job.

“I wanted to still be able to teach when that happened and I knew a bachelor’s would not make the cut,” Grim said.

Pam Halfhill, MS, RRT, TTS, assistant professor and chair of diagnostics and therapeutic health sciences at Rhodes State College in Lima, OH, was thinking of the future when she pursued her master’s as well.

“If I wanted to move to a chair, dean, or higher rank I needed to get a master’s degree,” she said.

For Vicki S. Rosette, MS, RRT, RPFT, chair and program director for respiratory care at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, MD, a master’s meant she would be able to move forward with plans to launch a new online degree advancement program for RRTs.

“Without what I had learned in the master’s program I don’t think I would have had the knowledge, skills, and attributes, to say nothing of the confidence, to even attempt such an endeavor,” Rosette said.


Managers were less likely to report that their job actually requires a master’s degree, but many implied that having a master’s helped them land the leadership positions they have today.

“In our hospital, this was the direction that anyone wanting to be a department director needed to be pursuing,” said Denise McElyea, MSM, RRT, RPFT, who manages multiple departments at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “I am the director of respiratory, which includes PFT, sleep, and pulmonary rehab for three campuses.”

Ryan Bellomy, MBA, RRT, credits his master’s degree with getting him his first job as a department director in the spring of 2009.

“A recruiter came across my resume and the hospital I interviewed with was seeking an RT with an MBA. I was nearly there and they hired me on contingency of completing my program,” said Bellomy, who now works as director of respiratory care at Kapi’olani Medical Center for Women & Children in Honolulu, HI.

Others said their master’s degree has put them on a level playing field with other clinical leaders in their organization who do bring master’s degrees to the table, and many also reported that having an advanced degree has led to leadership opportunities in their organizations.

“It has opened doors to opportunities that I may not have had with only my bachelor’s,” said Steve Mosakowski, MBA, RRT, RRT-NPS, CPFT, FAARC, director of respiratory care services at UChicago Medicine in Chicago, IL. “It allowed me to be on a par with most of the other clinical leaders in our organization.”

Debra Skees, MBA, RRT, CPFT, manager of respiratory services, PFT, pulmonary rehabilitation, and EMG at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, MN, believes her master’s makes it easier for her to advocate for her RTs and the other clinicians she is responsible for as well.

“Personally, I believe the degree provides credibility and a broader perspective when addressing strategic initiatives that impact the hospital,” Skees said.

No regrets

Perhaps most tellingly, none of our respondents reported any regret about investing the time, money, and energy it took to earn their master’s degrees. They all felt good about their choice to pursue the degree, and even the few who had yet to see it pay off in the position they really wanted said it had increased their ability to do the jobs they have now.

And while most of our respondents addressed the value of higher degrees in management and education, at least one cited good reason for bedside clinicians to think about advancing their education as well.

R.T. Dailey, MHA, RRT, RRT-ACCS, serves as manager of respiratory therapy for the Heart Center, the respiratory therapy unit rotation service, and the respiratory therapy wage pool at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville.

“Currently, the average education level among respiratory therapists at UVA is rivaling that of our nursing colleagues,” Dailey said. “I expect that in another few years the average bedside respiratory therapist will have a higher education level than his/her nursing counterpart.”

That kind of thinking surely bodes well for the future of respiratory care.

We would like to thank everyone who responded to this post for input on the master’s degree. It was wonderful to hear from so many respiratory therapists who are advancing their degrees and their careers to the next level.