For anyone trying to track down a job, the array of career services in the Washington area can appear as one vast and confusing maze.

There are individual counselors, placement agencies, resume' writers, Saturday-morning seminars, executive (or "headhunting") recruiters, companies to test your aptitudes, week-long retreats for mid-life career-changers. The costs range from free to about $15 for the seminars, to $40 an hour and up for personal counseling, to hundreds, even thousands of dollars for some services.

How do you know what's best for you? And who are the most-qualified people to provide it?

These are questions Washington career counselors acknowledge are hard to answer because few performance guidelines exist for their profession--which, they say, tends to mushroom in a job-threatening recession. Nor is there a directory of certified counselors.

"It's a terrible situation for somebody who's unemployed, full of anxiety and scared to death," says Stanley Hyman, a longtime critic of many career-guidance practices and teacher for 12 years of a seven-week "Strategy of Career Transition" course at Catholic University.

Some firms, he charges, capitalize on that anxiety. "I've had guys call me Sundays at midnight to say they were fleeced by career counselors. I hate to see people get rich on the misfortunes of others." He hastens to add that the field does have some "good, well-trained people."

"People can call themselves professionals without counseling training or skills," adds career counselor-consultant Irene B. Ansher of Career and Life Planning Associates of Potomac. They "can teach a course and call it counseling; can run people through a canned program rather than focus on individual needs and differences; can ignore the stress and sometimes the significant anxiety which accompanies the process in many people."

Ansher and others are considering the establishment of a counselors' registry and credentials for the profession. The Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington gets frequent inquiries about firms, says vice president Candace Von Salzen, but not a large volume of complaints.

Meanwhile, for a starter in your hunt for good advice, the career services in the Washington area can be divided into a few basic categories. Among them:

Career counselors: Can be helpful to people unhappy at work, uncertain about the career they want, or at a loss about where to begin. Clients include mid-life career-changers and older women re-entering the job market. Expect hand-holding, morale-boosting and possibly family and financial counseling in a self-awareness program frequently lasting several months.

* Career consultants: For those who know what job they want but can't seem to land it. Advice on resume'-writing, interviewing techniques and job-search strategies. You may need only an hour or two of help aimed at a specific problem.

(The same person or firm often performs both the counseling and consulting functions. The goal is to prepare you for a job hunt and get you pointed in the right direction. It's up to you to find and get the job.)

* Employment agencies: Generally in the business of placing people. Particularly good for entry-level positions such as secretary or computer operator. The higher up the management ladder you have climbed, the less likely they will find an opening for you. Usually paid by an employer when a job is filled--which means they could be tempted to persuade you to take a position. (For filling a $17,000 secretarial job, a $2,500 fee is not unusual.)

* Executive search firms: Hired by companies to look for skilled technicians, engineers and executives, usually to fill specific jobs. Many will add your name to their roster; others also will advertise your talents to clients.

* Workshops, seminars, college courses: Often free or low cost, provide an introduction to techniques of career-changing and job-hunting. May be the only outside help needed. Sessions listed frequently in The Washington Post's Monday Business calendar.

To Ansher, who once taught high-school psychology in Montgomery County schools, a career counselor is someone who helps you answer, "Where to from here?"

Clients, she says, often are unaware of their needs. They may be seeking job-hunting skills, but she could conclude, after listening to them, that assertiveness-training is what's needed.

Ansher charges $40 for an hour's individual counseling and $25-$30 for 90 minutes in small groups. "I believe a combination of individual and small-group counseling is ideal. The client should read one or more of the how-to books to get the full picture and then get help to go through the process."

A client, she says, may need only one session, or six months. "There is a real difference between learning a strategy for interviewing and getting counseling to identify your own needs and abilities and values."

While job-seekers make up part of her clientele, the largest group "are working, but unhappy in their jobs." Because of today's tight employment market, Ansher concedes that it may be unrealistic to consider switching careers. Instead, she often suggests that a person "take a look at his or her non-work life. You can exert a choice there." A pleasanter home life, she says, can mean less discontent on the job.

Eighteen months ago job-hunters going through Ralph L. Minker's counseling program averaged about three months to find a job. Now, he says, it's taking "twice that long." A new development is that the unemployed are having better luck finding a new position than those still on the job "because they can put in a 10-hour day at it."

Minker's firm, Minker-O'Connell Associates of Tysons Corner, shows clients how "to assess themselves and their options and then helps them to set up a campaign to secure those options." His fee: 5 percent of a current annual salary, for six, two-hour sessions over a period of about three weeks. And then, says Minker, a former Methodist minister, "We'll stay with them in a consultant role" through the job search.

Those seeking help from counselor Cynthia Gurne's Career Services Group of Washington ($40 an hour) are, she says, mostly "very bright and very articulate. Basically they need somebody to bounce off conflicts." Success to her is when clients feel "more in control of their lives," or have renewed self-esteem after the shock of being fired or RIFfed.

People have been known to phone Washington career consultant J.M. (Jodie) Nachison and demand " 'Get me employed.' I say, 'That's not what I do.' People want to believe that miracles can happen." She will help you write a resume' ($125) or teach you to market yourself in other ways ($30 an hour). "But you have to be a hard worker yourself."

She believes counselors or consultants should tailor their services to individual clients, rather than sell them a fixed package of advice. For example, many job-seekers find the go-out-and-get-'em advice of career books "intimidating." For people "too timid or shy, we use a different strategy. We may focus on their letter-writing abilities."

It's the number of contacts a counselor has in the business world that impresses career-book author and psychologist S. Norman Feingold, who heads National Career & Counseling Services of Washington ($60 an hour). "A lot of career counselors are theoretical. I'm biased in the area of what they're doing to get jobs."

For one client, a recent college graduate with television training, Feingold phoned a manager he knows at a Washington TV station. "He'll give her 15 minutes. If she does well, things will happen."

Penny Garner of Taking Charge!, who dubs herself a Washington "career coach" ($50 an hour), adds that job-seekers "have a right to expect a counselor to know how organizations work: how Capitol Hill offices work, how associations work, how a Fortune 500 company works, a law firm, a university."

And different personality types work for different people.

"A counselor," reminds Ansher, "may be perfect for one person--and may be quite ethical and competent--but for another person may be too stiff or formal or too laid back or casual."