On a brown polka-dot bulletin board in the Washington School for Secretaries downtown, a pathetic cardboard figure is on display: bloodshot eyes, a hook for a left hand, heavily wrinkled face, frazzled hair and cramped posture.

She's supposed to be a secretary, and the message of the caricature is supposed to be a humorous warning of "secretary burnout" to prospective nine-to-fivers. But yesterday, on the eve of Professional Secretaries Day, the WSS students were undaunted. They could hardly wait for their chance to "run things behind the scenes," to be "power freaks."

As statistics point to an ever-greater demand for secretaries, students at secretarial schools here are brimming with optimism--even in these recession-rocked times--about their career prospects. They stand poised to take their places in this city of offices, paper flow, appointment calendars, and, of course, secretaries.

In Washington, said Sally Long, director of education at WSS, secretaries "run the business. . . . I feel that if all secretaries walked out of their offices, one hour of one day, no employer would be able to accomplish anything."

Last year, there were an estimated 250,000 secretaries in the Washington-Baltimore area. According to a report recently given to the D.C. Women's Program Managers Committee by D.C. public schools educator Gwendolyn Marrow, there are 295,000 annual openings for secretarial jobs in the United States each year. By 1990 the figure is expected to reach 302,000.

And starting salaries for secretaries are expected to increase, too, within the next five years, from an annual average of $12,000 to $15,000. Certified secretaries may look forward to earning from $24,000 to $30,000 in the same period, according to the report.

Yes, the students admitted, some secretaries are losing their jobs, particularly in government. But they say they will steer clear of the trouble spots. They are sure there will be more than enough good jobs awaiting them once they're readied with shorthand, typing, data processing and accounting.

And so the students keep coming. There are about 750 studying at WSS. According to Joe Donovan, public relations director for Strayer College downtown, about 15 percent of that school's 2,000 students are studying secretarial skills.

A group of WSS students sat in a classroom yesterday and listened as graduates proclaimed their recent triumphs.

Debra Hoover, dressed in a smart black suit, white blouse and matching ascot, represented a kind of ideal for many of the students. She told them how she was ascending the ranks of the American Society of Internal Medicine on Vermont Avenue NW, one of the many professional and trade associations that have proliferated downtown on and near K Street and become a major source of employment for Washington secretaries.

The influx of trade associations into Washington has slowed somewhat over the past year or so, but hasn't stopped. Those are the jobs WSS graduates want, jobs in the private sector.

Secretarial salaries at private firms and associations in the middle to upper teens equal GS 7 or GS 9 starting salaries for professionals in government. Very few students, say administrators at the secretarial schools, aspire to work for the government.

Hoover, who graduated from WSS two years ago, stood before the students as director of the society's administrative services. She said emphatically, "I love it. It's the best job I ever had."

She said she had gone to college and majored in psychology, worked for a time in a mental hospital, and never wanted to be a secretary. "But I didn't know what a secretary was," Hoover said. "It's been an amazing experience."

Student Cindy Cummings, 21, of Bowie, is bullish on her future. She explained that she's heard a lot of tales about secretaries working their way to top management positions, "even president."

Cummings, a slight woman with three small earrings in her right ear, said she graduated from Bowie Senior High School after "really not learning anything." For about two years, she took a string of part-time and temporary jobs.

"I realized that the kind of job I wanted with the money I wanted was that of a secretary," she said, encouraged on by the daily newspapers' classified ads where pages upon pages asked for secretaries with employers saying they were willing to pay from $12,000 to $20,000 a year--far more than some of her friends, who initially disapproved of her wanting to be a secretary, are now making in minimum-wage receptionist jobs.

"I'm not going to sit behind a typewriter all day. That's a clerk-typist," Cummings said. "I want to be a traveling secretary, going city-to-city to all of the branch offices." She said she has already been offered a job--three months before she's due to graduate--at $14,000 a year. Her response: "I don't think that's enough."

Candace Louis, spokeswoman for Professional Secretaries International, a Kansas City-based advocacy group that started Secretaries Week and Secretaries Day 30 years ago, said the organization is urging the nation's 2.5 million secretaries not only to graciously accept today's traditional gifts of flowers and invitations to lunch from bosses, but also to press for "professional perks."

For example, she said, employers should pay for a secretary's subscription to a job-related journal.

WSS students Mark Cobb, 22, and Steve Marshall, 19, represent another trend--men who have decided to enter the female-dominated field because they think it is a good career move.

"There is a better chance to advance, it's a good place to start, and the secretary knows everything that is going on in the office," said Marshall, who lives in Bowie.

Cobb, who lives in Alexandria, said he wants to be a secretary because he is a "power freak" who enjoys the secretary's need to pay attention to detail. He also said he likes people depending on him, enjoys being a grand puppeteer of sorts.

" 'Just a secretary' doesn't apply anymore," Cobb said.