There's a job-hunting option most federal workers threatened by a RIF probably don't want to think about.

But, say career counselors, if worse comes to worst and hundreds of bureaucrats with similar qualifications start tripping over each other in pursuit of the same rare opening, it is an option they might seriously consider.

The unthinkable: Hunt for a new job outside Washington.

A move can be a major upheaval in anyone's life--friends and classmates left behind, spouse's career interrupted, the difficulty of selling (and buying) a home in the current market. And then there's the question of how to go about finding a job, say, in California. It's a difficult enough task in your hometown where, at least, you know your way around.

It's no wonder that, as Maryland counseling psychologist Zandy Leibowitz of Career Institute says, "At this point people are still trying to stay in D.C. They're still not at the end of the line. In many federal agencies that are being riffed, people haven't gotten their RIF Reduction in Force notices. They're still in a frozen state."

Their first goal, says Leibowitz -- who has been involved for several years in a career-development program at Goddard Space Flight Center and is working now with a large federal agency undergoing a reduction in force--"is to stay in the federal government."

If that fails, she says, maybe they tell themselves, "I'll try the private sector in D.C."

And only as a last resort, they may begin to think:

"Oh, God! If I can't find anything, maybe I'll relocate."

While that is not something she is currently advising, she does say that "in the worst possible case"--if everyone threatened by a RIF does get the ax--then "job-hunters will be bumping into each other. There's no way they will be absorbed in D.C. I would encourage everybody to look at every possible option."

Shirley Levin, author of a career-planning guide for students, agrees: "Washington is probably going to be the worst employment market. There's not enough private industry to soak up all those suddenly unemployed people." (Levin's firm, College Bound, counsels on choosing a college.)

"For a lot of people, hanging around the Washington job market," says Penny Garner of Taking Charge!, a Washington career-counseling firm, "is not going to be profitable." Garner has scheduled a seminar Saturday, Oct. 17, aimed at helping workers research out-of-town employment.

"If there's any place you've ever wanted to visit, to try out," she says, "this is a good time." She even suggests taking a job away from here only "for three years and then come back. You can't sell your house, but you can rent."

That's the decision facing one "high-level executive" Leibowitz has been counseling, who is seeking a new post in New York City. "She owns three houses and can't unload any of them." Another riffed bureaucrat is aiming for an interim Peace Corps post abroad with his wife.

In a show of hands last week, 6 out of a group of 18 Community Services Administration employes who have been riffed indicated they would consider relocating outside Washington. As part of a job-hunting workshop, Life Management Services, a McLean life-planning firm, is showing them how to narrow down the choice of cities, based on such criteria as job opportunities, good public transportation, cultural activities and climate.

"If you really are opposed to shoveling snow," says Marilyn Shook, a partner with her husband Harold in the firm, "that will define a part of the country to avoid."

A relocation, say the Shooks, amounts to a "tradeoff," which families must weigh carefully. "We can't keep the same standard of living if we stay here," they may find. But in moving they will lose cherished roots in the community.

"It's not an easy decision."

To cover all bases, some advisers suggest beginning to research the job market elsewhere--even before you get your RIF notice--while pursuing the hunt locally. Finding a good replacement job, they stress, is hard work and can take from weeks to months.

But how to go about that search?

The eight counselors agree on three basic points:

1) Be as specific as you can about where you want to go and the type of job you want.

"If you're hazy about what you're searching for," says Richard N. Bolles, author of the best-selling manual for job-hunters, What Color Is Your Parachute?, "you're going to botch up."

2) Take time to research the community you've picked--from a wide array of resources available in Washington--before you ever buy an airline ticket out of here.

"You don't just leap out of Washington," says John C. Crystal of New York, a life-planning specialist and author of Where Do I Go From Here With My Life? "You have to do your homework. It's not sexy, I know, but you're just wasting your time if you don't."

A former client of Crystal's, an electronics engineering manager with the federal government for more than 20 years, decided he wanted to move from Washington to Albuquerque in an entirely different field.

"He was able to gather a great deal of information on about every corporation in Albuquerque in that field," says Crystal. "He got a lot of help from the New Mexico congressional delegation. He got names and addresses of top officials. He wrote for annual reports.

"After he had assembled a file of potential organizational targets--30 to 40 of them--then, and only then, did he go to Albuquerque."

And: "He got himself invited to a technical conference, so the flight didn't cost him."

In the end, "He got 12 offers in one week. He picked the one he liked best, accepted it and quit the government. He's going great guns."

Where you put the emphasis in your search, adds Garner, depends on what you feel is most important -- where you are going (the "quality of community life") or what you do (the "growth opportunities").

3) Develop contacts and more contacts.

"The more people you're able to contact," says Gregory Hayes, director of the University of Southern California's Career Development Center, "the greater opportunity you have for securing a job," since an estimated 85 percent of job openings are never advertised anywhere.

In the distant community, contacts can include friends already living there; high school and college alumni--even if you didn't know them in school; the pastor or congregation in the church of your faith. They can tell you about their town and, maybe, give you the names of people who are hiring. For more names, ask your hometown stockbroker, banker, minister, members of your professional association.

For Hayes, who left Washington in 1977 to take the West Coast job, the process was somewhat easier. "I found an advertisement in a professional journal. They were looking for a director of placement. I'm a classic example of sending in your resume.

"They reviewed it and called me for a phone interview. They flew me out to talk to the search committee. I was hired a month later.

"I had never been to California. I came out in January. The day I left there was an ice storm in D.C. In L.A., it was 80 degrees. I decided, 'I'm going to stay.' "

But, knowing the value of contacts, "I told them, 'If you don't hire me for this job, I'm going to ask for referrals.' " At the same time, he looked for openings at other California colleges: "I took advantage of being there."

Initiative, says Crystal, is another important factor. He recounts the case of an out-of-work aerospace engineer on Long Island who was too broke to fly out to Los Angeles where he wanted to work:

"He studied the airline schedules and then went out to Kennedy Airport. He made it his business to meet the air crews," especially those whose home was in Los Angeles. "In the first crew, the co-pilot's brother-in-law ran an electronics firm."

The result: "He got an instant contact. It's a question of using your ingenuity."

Another example of ingenuity:

Consultant William Black, a Taking Charge! instructor, tells of a friend looking for a health-field job in San Francisco.

"He read the proceedings of the annual conference for the professional association," particularly the abstracts of papers presented by people from the Bay Area. "Whenever he found someone whose point of view he felt comfortable with, he wrote for an interview."

A reminder: Moving to a new town can be stressful. Says University of Maryland counseling psychologist Nancy Schlossberg, who is doing a study on how people cope in transitions: "To one person, a geographical move may represent a great opportunity; to another, it may mean a loss of support and identity.

"Remember," she says, "in any transition, it takes a lot more time to assimilate a change than you think."

On the plus side, says Garner, you find out that there are many "different and interesting jobs in Minnesota that you don't have here."

When do you decide to give up on finding a job in Washington?

"You can never quite say that," maintains Crystal. "People die. People quit. People even get fired. Even if people say there are no jobs to be had, tain't so."