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I have been in contact with a professor since October last year about a post-doc position.

We had three meetings so far. The first one to get to know each other better and to establish the project's subject. The second one, after I wrote 12 pages, to develop the project. The third one, after I wrote 20 pages, to submit the project to a funding agency.

In the third meeting, he criticized me for not publishing so much, but then said he was satisfied with the quality of my project, just to call me pretentious after that because I proposed a comparative analysis between languages he doesn't speak (like Romanian, Polish, Catalan).

I never had my Master's advisor, nor my PhD advisor calling me pretentious before. Do you think it is okay? I felt a little insulted by his comment. He said my comparative analysis was pretentious because I couldn't possibly be fluent in these many languages. I might start looking for another professor.

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    Brief remark: postdocs aren't students.
    – user176372
    Apr 19 at 21:39
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    Could be anywhere along a spectrum, from the professor launching a nasty personal attack that's a major red flag in a potential employer. to a very good sign that the professor already considers OP a colleague and a friend with whom he can josh around. At present, we can't tell which. Apr 19 at 21:48
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    "just to call me pretentious after that because I proposed a comparative analysis between languages he doesn't speak" "He said my comparative analysis was pretentious because I couldn't possibly be fluent in these many languages" – these are quite different claims. (There is also a difference between "called me pretentious" vs. "said my comparative analysis was pretentious". I imagine one possibility is that he said the latter and you heard the former.) Apr 19 at 22:53
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    "because I proposed a comparative analysis between languages he doesn't speak" -- did he say this was the reason, or are you presuming this is the cause? Because if you are presuming this, then maybe I do agree that you are pretentious. Why assume he is closed-minded instead of the fact that maybe has broader linguistic background to understand the weakness of a plan? I don't speak any of those languages but can describe many linguistic features of them, having studied linguistics for many years. He may think you are overcomplicating the analysis to show off your linguistic skills. Apr 19 at 23:48
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    @LePetitNicolas That's unfortunate. I'm sorry. I think I wouldn't adjust over a single comment, but maybe also you should be more direct in your feelings as well. Sometimes direct people need direct reactions when they act poorly. Apr 20 at 1:31

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I'm hesitant to indict someone on one brief utterance. It does not seem like it was intended as a personal attack but rather as professional criticism. Probably the professor should have chosen a different term or conveyed the criticism a different way; the one chosen doesn't even make much logical sense. It seems from the limited information I have here that what they really meant to say is that your proposal is too ambitious. An advisor would be failing their duties if they failed to warn their mentee of a project that seemed too ambitious.

The potential example of pretentiousness that I can see is in the assumption that the criticism is because the professor does not speak those languages. It is pretentious to think that your knowledge of these languages makes you a better judge of the feasibility of the project than a more senior academic; they don't necessarily need to know specific languages to deduce the complexity of a project involving multiple languages, and assessing feasibility is very much in the job description of a research mentor. Remember that the funding agency will likely have the same initial thoughts. They won't know you personally and will not be able to verify that the person asking for funding actually is fluent in such a wide range of languages - their skepticism may lead your proposal to be scored poorly whether you're actually fluent or not.

So, back to the original question: is it okay for an advisor to use derogatory language towards a mentee or potential mentee? No, it's not. Criticism often needs to be delivered but it should be done in a constructive way. But for a one-off event with a strictly professional rather than personal connotation and a reasonable alternative interpretation of the events, I think some leeway is warranted. People say things in conversation or off the cuff that are not crafted the way they might craft them if they took a lot of time and consideration to each word uttered.

It's possible that you and this advisor are just not a good fit if their communication style is rather blunt and unmanaged and that isn't something you work well with, but I think "fit" is a shared attribute of both parties and lack of fit isn't something to blame on one or the other. If you don't think mutual respect between you is possible then definitely consider other options.

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    Or, alternatively it could be a humorous comment, a kind of backhanded compliment about the fact that OP is apparently fluent in 4 languages!. A bit like when someone juggling mounts a unicylle and starts pedalling around and someone says "Now you're just showing off!"
    – user186965
    Apr 20 at 9:21

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