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I am starting my PhD in three weeks in Denmark. In Denmark, it is usual that PhD students are formally employees of the university but also have student status. I have received recently my employee contract electronically through a trusted website (not email, but a governmental portal, with verified identity of the sender). There was no way to sign it, so I asked how to sign it. To my surprise, I was told that I don't have to sign it.

What is that? The contract states some of my obligations as well as my pay. How can anyone enforce a contract that I have not signed? I have not even explicitly stated that I agree with the contract. (I would have some understanding if they told me to reply that I agree with the contract through the trusted website.)

Can there be any negative consequences for me if I don't sign it? I don't think I would be being unreasonable if I ask firmly that I want to get it signed. For example, the contract specifies several-months-long notice in case they want to fire me. Even though it is unlikely that would be ever a problem, I am worried that it may not apply if I don't sign the contract. Or am I just overreacting?

My supervisor is a very reasonable person and I am sure he would understand if I tell him I want to sign (and get signed) the contract.

If it matters, there is no signature on the contract I have received but it was provably sent by the university's HR.


Update: While it was not necessary for me to sign the contract, I did need the signed contract from them. I needed this for my residence permit (even though I have an EU citizenship) as well as for my "tax card" (a document that determines my tax bracket (without it, one pays the maximum tax)).

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    I don't know the law, of course, but there may be provisions for "implied consent" to the terms if you show up. A signature only makes consent explicit.
    – Buffy
    Jul 9 at 14:42
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    Does the e-contract website serve as a long-term reference that can be accessed later? Having proof of the date and content of the contract the university submitted to you would make it difficult for them to later claim that you actually had a different contract or no contract at all. Jul 9 at 14:51
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    Forget it. Both sides know they have exchanged the contract, when you show up for work and they let you in, that's a perfectly clear sign of mutual agreement. The audit trail of that government portal and your email exchange with it is another one.
    – Karl
    Jul 9 at 18:56
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    In Switzerland one does not have to sign the contract as a PhD. That is due to some strange law we have. Maybe in Denmark this is the same. Jul 9 at 20:32
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    FYI, the links further up are definitely not duplicates of this question: those ask what good is signing, whereas this asks what's the state of not signing. Jul 9 at 21:02
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According to these Danish labor union websites, it is correct that you don’t need to sign:

https://www.detfagligehus.dk/faa-hjaelp/loenmodtager/i-arbejde/ansaettelse/ansaettelseskontrakt/

“The law doesn’t say that an employment contract has to be signed. The contract is valid without a signature. What matters is that it has been given to you.”

https://krifa.dk/fs/ansaettelsesvilkaar/ansaettelseskontrakt-og-vilkaar

“Did you know that … there is no requirement that your contract has to be signed? If it has been given to you and/or you work according to the contract, it is already valid.”

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    Can you elaborate? So what happens if you do an interview, they just send you a contract but you don't like the terms you still have to use these terms? What if you send contracts to random people?
    – lalala
    Jul 11 at 17:37
  • I will let it go, based on this answer, but I still agree with @lalala. For example, I have been coming to the university for the past couple of months for free because I enjoyed it. This would, for example, make the implicit consent noted by Buffy more complicated, I would expect. Jul 11 at 19:39
  • @lalala: It’s implicit that the employee is not bound by the contract before giving their consent (it’s just that that consent can be given simply by showing up for work). The quotes are from informal Q&A texts – they authors have not been super careful with their formulations. Jul 11 at 21:15
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    @lalala, while I this is from a German perspective, I wouldn't be surprised if the same holds for Denmark: these contracts are subject to collective agreements (unionized) - there's hardly anything to negotiate. The full terms are publicly available in the internet. I've had a single page employment contract at a university with plenty line spacing, basically stating who's employed, on which project, for which (fixed) term, and basically a #include statement for the collective agreement. For postdoc positions, there may be a little wiggle room to negotiate on step on the wage scale ... Sep 11 at 15:43
  • ...(which would correspond to you conducting the work without the need for academic supervision/supervising yourself) and the years of work experience they count towards this job. A PhD student would almost always be supervised and start without academic work experience. Sep 11 at 15:45
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In US law at least, a "contract" doesn't necessarily mean a piece of paper that two parties have signed. Any agreement, whether or not it's in writing, can be enforceable. If you are attending the program, that's pretty good evidence that you and the university have made an agreement.

But it's still a good idea to get a signed copy since it's a lot easier to point to a piece of paper than it is to argue that the contract was valid in the extremely unlikely event that the university disputes it.

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  • it's not only US law, but almost every jurisdiction in the world. The principle goes back to at least Roman times, and it probably precedes it. Any jurisdiction that was even a bit in touch with the Romans (roughly everyone) has a clear separation between consent and formalities, and the primacy of consent.
    – Andrei
    Jul 11 at 0:54
  • And indeed if you had to draw up a written signed contract every time you popped into a shop to buy a newspaper, or engaged someone to clean your windows, or the vast vast vast majority of other contracts we enter into on a daily basis, life would pretty quickly become unliveable!!
    – eggyal
    Jul 11 at 11:51
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    Here while it is generally true (for work contract oral agreement is enough) some agreements have to be in writing (termination of work contract for example) and some have to be notarized (like real estate purchases), otherwise they wouldn't be valid.
    – lalala
    Sep 11 at 15:46
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Employment contracts without signatures are less common in Academia, but most academics would consider them acceptable. In my experience, university purchasing is conducted entirely with unsigned contracts, but employment contracts often have a digital image of a signature on them. The image is just there because it is traditional, not because it is important.

If you want an answer based on law, consult the Law Stack Exchange.

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As far as negative consequences of not signing go, one thing to watch out for is ownership of intellectual property. If you don't have a contract in place that explicitly specifies who owns the IP you create, then you fall back on whatever default arrangement for ownership of IP created by employees is delineated by the public law of your country. That default arrangement is very likely to be less favourable to the employee than an explicit arrangement set out in a university contract.

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    Not sure why this answer was downvoted. I am no IP lawyer, but not having the signature on a contract throws IP ownership into a gray area. Happened to someone I know in a private Asian university.
    – Paddy
    Jul 9 at 23:42
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    @Paddy In most European countries the ownership of IP created by an employee in the course of their employment is not a "gray area" at all. Of course the OP might not like what the "black-and-white" default legal position is, but there is nothing "gray" or "ambiguous" about it that would need to be determined by a court.
    – alephzero
    Jul 10 at 0:54
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    people are downvoting because your answer doesn't answer the question and it is mostly based on speculation. What does not signing the contract that was agreed upon has to do with IP. If there are IP clauses, they apply just the same, regardless of any signature. And if there aren't any IP clauses, a signature is not going to make a difference. You are answering the question "what aspects should I negotiate in my academia contract?", which is very different from the asked question. It is not nice when people don't comment why they downvote though.
    – Andrei
    Jul 11 at 1:01
  • @Andrei On your first point, it answers the question 'Can there be any negative consequences for me if I don't sign it?'. On your second point, it's based on my familiarity with a real situation at the University of Cambridge, not just speculation. On your third point, you're right that, in the light of AnonyPostdoc's answer, my concerns are irrelevant in Denmark, because there the contract is in force even if not signed. Jul 11 at 13:40
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    @Paddy No, quite the reverse. In (at least) the UK, the US, and the Netherlands, if there is no contract specifying otherwise, the employer, not the employee, gets ownership and control of the IP by default. Jul 11 at 17:12

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