As Jimmy Carter's special assistant for congressional relations, Valerie Pinson moved in the intense world of Washington power-brokering and White House connections. But when the Carter presidency ended, Pinson soon found herself standing in an unemployment line -- alongside her newly unemployed maid.

More than five months after the changing of administrations, Pinson is still job-hunting. And, like scores of Carter appointees who lost their jobs when Ronald Reagan won his, the 51-year-old government veteran has found her employment search a lot tougher than she expected.

"It's the most depressing thing I've ever been through," said Pinson, who has abandoned her efforts for the summer. I've been in this town for 33 years, and I've seen administrations come and go, but I don't think it's ever been this hard to find a job."

Pinson's work history before Carter's election had included stints as a congressional aide and an Office of Economic Opportunity program specialist, and she is confident that eventually she will get a job. But Pinson and other former aides in the Democratic administration -- even those who have found jobs by now -- have had to face what one says is a Washington fact of life: "When you're in, you're in, and when you're out, boy, are you out!"

The traditional perception has been that a tour of duty with any administration is a prestigious item on job resumes and a valuable job-hunting asset. Jack Valenti, a former top aide to Lyndon Johnson and now the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, remembers being ordered aboard the team by LBJ and told brusquely, "When you work for the President, you should be marketable."

Yet many Carter people have not gone on to the jobs of their dreams -- or any job. Like many others, they have been caught in a job-hunting squeeze almost unprecedented in the nation's capital. Some believe they are additionally handicapped by their association with the former administration, and that in general it is harder to go from a Democratic administration into a Republican-dominated corporae world.

"I knew a lot of people from the White House who really thought they could write their own ticket from here on in," said Tom Teal, 44, a former Carter speech writer now working temporarily in New York. "I mean the expectations were almost laughable exaggerated -- there were jokes about not accepting anything less than the presidency of a small country."

For some, the personal adjustment of not being at the fever-pitch center op power has been more jarring than the job-hunting, though very few would choose to resume such a frantic work pace.

A great number of Carter staffers came to Washington straight from the campaign trail, with little or no corporate or other experience in the private sector. Some found themselves earning $40,000 or $50,000 with the government, but with no established careers to fall back on. Administration "stars" and most of the lawyers have done well, at the very least returning to their old law firms. While many, by choice and not by choice, have left town to find work, other midlevel Carterites are still at loose ends or only working temporarily.

The reality of the tight job market stunned many. Teal, for instance, thought he had a job lined up with a government-funded research institution.But the institution snatched back its offer after its operation -- and budget -- came under attack by Reagan's advisers. Also, sweeping Republican victories in the Senate and House turned a record number of Democratic incumbents, and their staffs, out of office, making the competition for jobs all the more fierce. And some women and blacks, brought into government in higher numbers than ever before, said they discovered that the pressure for affirmative action among private industry seemed to lessen with Republicans in power.

The nonlawyers among the Carter group found the situation all the more difficult because, said Ernest Green, 39, a former assistant secretary of labor who has started his own consulting firm, "The old boy network doesn't work as well for us."

The rudest shock, for many, was the decompression as they went from the heady world of administration politics and status to the uncertainty of job-hunting. Expectations that outran reality inevitably led to disappointment.

"In the beginning, it was pure depression," said Paul Costello, of his efforts to adjust to life as an outsider. Only 25 when he became assistant press secretary to former first lady Rosalynn Carter, he said he always felt pressure from family and friends "to top this off, like next I'd have to run a corporation or something."

He went to job interniews and found that people were intimidated by his White House background. One senator balked at hiring him as press secretary for fear of giving the impression the legislator was running for president. Wanting to stay in Washington, Costello hasx taken a temporary job as a researcher for former White House press secretary Jody Powell, who is working on a book. When Costello does decides what he wants to do, he expects he will need a high-pressure job.

For a while Costello did not drive his car anywhere near the White House and the day he finally rode his bike past the East Wing "my stomach got sort of nauseous," he said. He is reminded that there will be no more "getting up and flying off to Jerusalem or flying off to see Cambodian refugees." No more flying on the first lady's plane "where the stewards knew how you like your tea." But gone, too, is the grueling experience of working seven days a week and being totally committed to his job.

"This has been the most healthy time of my life and it's given me a chance to put my life back in perspective," Costello said, echoing the views of many ex-Carter staffers. He has quit smoking, runs three to four miles a day and has time, at last, to devote to personal relationships.

"I never, ever want to go back there again," he said. "It was a crazy, crazy place, and I loved every minute of it, but I don't want to be robbed of a personal life like that again."

Most of those who have not found jobs or who have taken substantial pay cuts say they are struggling to get by. Some have sold homes and moved into apratments; others talk of moving in with relatives if it comes to that. All cite examples of how they have simplified their lives to cut expenses.

"What I've done, because I have two kids and a house , is to borrow from the bank and go to the limit on my Visa card. A lot of other people have the same thing," said a former deputy making $40,000 to $50,000 a year and suddenly you're making nothing, it's difficult."

Jerome Doolittle, former head of public affairs at the Federal Aviation Administration, has had so much trouble finding a job that his is starting to suspect his Carter connection is the reason.

"My general impression is that people who would have walked instantly into jobs out of any other White House have found it extremely difficult -- there's this erroneous perception in business and industry that anyone associated with Carter is probably incompetent," Doolittle, 47, said.

Now working on a novel, for which he has an advance, Doolittle just sold his Washington apartment and is moving back to his home in Connecticut. He has been answering ads in the Sunday newspapers, applying for jobs he says seemed to have been tailored to his specific strenghts.

"They look like they've been written with me in mind, and yet I never get a nibble," he said. "One would think that on the surface I might be someone you'd at least want to take a look at before rejecting me."

Margaret Carlson, who was special assistant to the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has a different problem.

"I haven't heard of anything, so there's nothing to apply for," Carlson said. She thinks companies that make consumer products have less interest in hiring regulatory experts because the expectation is that there won't be as many regulations under Reagan.

"There has been more of a change in philosophy, so the people with Carter are a little more out of sync than usual, and trade and consumer regulations are definitely going to be the first to go," she said.

"I'm shocked that I haven't found something yet," said Maryann Miller, whose Carter tenure included special assistant posts to the director of Action and then the secretary of education. "I never ever thought it was going to take this long."

Miller, 40, said she thought she had a lot of contacts until the change in administrations. She had a baby in November, went on unemployment and is only now starting a temporary job. "I like Washington, but I may have to leave because I don't see much here."

Opinions vary as to why some Carter people have had so much trouble in the job market. Some blame the economy alone; others say Carter staffers came in as outsiders and left as outsiders, noting that former vice president Walter Mondale's staffers have generally fared better because Mondale has long been a part of the Washington establishment.

Carter-passed conflict-of-interest legislation has also closed the door for those who might have wanted to work for firms they once helped regulate. In addition, the consulting business -- once a traditional job outlet for political soldiers of government -- is not expected to thrive under the Reagan administration, although several former Carter staffers have succeeded in starting such businesses, at least for now.

Clark onstad, former chief counsel at the FAA, said even many lawyers in the administration had to settle for associate status at law firms when in prior administrations they might have come out with partnerships.

The lawyers and nonlawyers, Onstad said, showed some failings in common during their Carter years. "They were bright people, but they did not relate well to those whom they regulated or dealth with. Business can live with anything as long as they know what's coming, but in the Carter administration there wasn't that kind of path, and it was a common complaint."

But Patricia Bario, a former White House press aid who has started a consulting firm, said younger Carter staffers had trouble because they had not developed corporate experience to fall back on.

"Suddenly there were so many people, especially women, who had been making $50,000, which is in the upper bracket no matter where you work, and they couldn't command that in the private sector," said Bario, 48. "And let's face it, Republicans slip more easily into the corporate world than Democrats."

Carter loyalists also point out that the situation would have been very different if their team had won. "We would have been able to choose from among 10 jobs then," said one. It's a mistake, they say, to always expect government service to "set you up for life," but it will be a plus, if not now, then later. Still others note that the Carter people "didn't fit the mold from beginning, and it's not too surprising we're not walking into corporations. That may not be what we all want to do anyway."

For Ross Brown, 31, another special assistant at the Consumer Product Safety Commission and now an aide to Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), several factors apparently played a hand in her initial job-hunting ordeal.

"I was actually told by somebody at a job interview that I had three strikes against me -- I was a Democrat, I was a regulator and I was a woman." It didn't help matters when a friend joked that Brown could change two things about herself but "you'll always be a regulator."

"There was a definite bias against us [Carterites], and it was awful sitting on these peoples' couches and drinking their coffee and hearing things like: 'You can say what you will about [former Nixon aides Bob] Haldeman and (John) Ehrlichman, but when they were around the trains ran on time."'

Though Brown has landed on her feet, many of her Carter colleagues have not. It has been a hard transition, she said, "to go from being a senior or midlevel person in the administration and then not be able to find a job. These people were in their 20s and 30s and for a time the whole world was their oyster -- what a rude awakening."

There is a positive side to the decompression and job-hunting experience: the return for many to some semblance of a normal life. "For the first time in my life, I walk home from work and the sun is still up," said Chris Matthews, another Carter speechwriter who now works for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Barbara Blum, former deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said she has enjoyed the change of pace since going into consulting, although she regrets "losing my car and my driver. Now I take the bus, I take the subway, I got my car towed away last week -- just like the other folk."

When J. Michael Kelly, former counsel to the attorney general and the secretary of energy, left his government job, "I wasn't sure I was readt to go back to Georgia -- I wasn't sure if I would ever be ready to go back to Georgia."

He settled in the Washington office of his old Atlanta law firm and began writing his own briefs instead of delegating the work to someone else. He had trouble, at first, adjusting to a schedule not interrupted "every 15 to 30 minutes with a crisis or an emergency." He misses the daily news summary he used to get at his government agency and he is no longer receiving intelligence updates from the CIA. He does not, he said, miss having to deal with 50 to 90 phone calls a day as required in his old job.

Henrietta Wright, who worked on the political issues staff at the White House and will enroll in law school this fall, said she has not pined away since leaving government service. But she was one of the first of her crowd to learn what happens when power goes sour in this city.

"I was writing a check for $12 worth of groceries at a little store the last week of the administration," she recalled recently. She had a check-cashing card on file at the market, where she had shopped before, identifying her as a White House employe.

"But the guy refused to cash my check when he saw the White House connection. He said I didn't have a job anymore."