Every research job/position I've ever had, I have had some sort of "informal" (verbal, via email) offer, followed by me showing up the first day of work to sign the contract and start. This is in Europe, where salaries for such positions are regulated and public knowledge so there was nothing to negotiate.

However, in conversations with people outside of academia, they view this as highly irregular. So I was wondering at what point an offer becomes "official"? At what point would you start thanking your references, rejecting other offers, looking for a new apartment, ..? When you get the "informal" offer, when you get a "formal" offer letter, when you sign the contract?

For me, the moment there's an offer ("we would like to offer you the position") and an acceptance (regardless of the form), it's "official" and I will start the process of notifying everyone and making arrangements if a move is necessary. Is this naive?

PS: I'm posting here rather than over at the Workplace StackExchange because I think this is an area where academia might differ from other jobs. If working in industry, I would never consider anything official until a contract has been signed.

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    To me, this seems very irregular in the academic setting, too. Nodody that I know would reject other offers before an official and legally binding contract is signed. The same is true vice versa - no academic institute would settle the candidate search before a contract has been signed. I am writing this from a central Europe perspective (Germany, Netherlands, Austria) - apparently there are differences across regions and maybe even disciplines.
    – LuckyPal
    Jan 10, 2022 at 8:20
  • @LuckyPal I had a German university already listing what courses I'd be teaching on their website at a moment where I hadn't signed anything yet. As a postdoc in the UK, I didn't sign anything that really looked like an employment contract to me during my 4 year position.
    – Arno
    Jan 10, 2022 at 14:49
  • @Arno interesting. This confirms that there are large differences. My experience is mainly with medical universities. At my current institution it is not possible to start working within ~4 weeks after signing the initial contract, as you need a medical examination and a confirmation from the staff council (which you are only eligible for with a signed contract :) ) before you receive an email account, network access, etc. Of course, informally, people may already start writing grants, preparing teaching material, etc. but in now way does this guarantee that they will actually get the job.
    – LuckyPal
    Jan 10, 2022 at 16:23
  • @Arno anecdotally, I was also listed at a institution's website as their statistician before the contract was signed. Then, the start of the position got actually delayed by 6 months due to some adminstrative issues. If I would have trusted the oral agreement, I would have been screwed! Probably, the listing on their website is kind of a legally binding job offer, but I highly doubt it is fun to sue an academic institute for the equivalent of a few months salary.
    – LuckyPal
    Jan 10, 2022 at 16:34

2 Answers 2


This is essentially a legal question, relating to when binding legal relations exist between an employer and a prospective employee. If you would like to understand this well, you should have a look into the basics of contract law, particularly in the context of workplace law. Contract law generally recognises a legally-binding contract to exist once there has been an offer and acceptance, even if this has not yet been formalised in a written "contract". So as a general rule, if they have verbally offered you a position and you have said yes, that is a legally binding contract.** Often the communication of an offer/acceptance is done by email, in which case there is also documented evidence of offer/acceptance. The purpose of a formal document is to set out the relevant terms of employment, and to act as evidence of the agreement and its terms.

So, your general position that it is "official" once there is an offer and acceptance is correct. The only potentially naive part about this is to consider whether you have evidence of the offer/agreement, whether the other party will be honest about this in the event of a dispute, and whether the terms of the agreement are sufficiently specified to avoid too much wriggle-room on the other end. If there is a dispute over the agreement, and it was purely verbal, are they going to admit that an offer was made? Will they characterise it accurately? Will they assert that it was conditional on anything? Can you prove your asserted position? For that reason, when I am dealing with these things, I will generally ask them to send me an email with their offer and I will email back with acceptance; that is enough to ensure that there is a binding agreement that I can prove.

You should also bear in mind that some offer of employment come subject to various conditions (e.g., background checks, probationary period, etc.) and their verbal/email offer might refer generally to conditions that are not yet fully specified until you see the formal "contract". For this reason, it is generally a good idea to wait until you see this formal document, to ensure that you are in agreement with them about any required conditions, etc., for your employment. If you are unsure of the legal status of your agreement, contact an employment lawyer and they can assist you.

** Even before this, if the employer has led you to believe you have a position with them, and then you don't get it, they can sometimes be liable for misleading or deceptive conduct.

  • While the first two paragraphs seem factually correct, only the third paragraph is actually relevant to academic practice. Jan 10, 2022 at 15:46

In universities, if you do not have a contract signed by yourself and the appropriate university official, you do not have a job.

This is more consistent in academia than it is in "industry" because "industry" includes the informal economy where contracts are not written.

  • 4
    Oddly enough, my experience is the exact opposite. I suspect that your answer is not widely applicable and would benefit from more context: Legally, a written, signed and countersigned contract is ironclad. In Europe, a verbal contract (or acceptance of an email offer) is as binding, even if the employer's representative can't extend the offer (but the candidate may reasonably assume they can). Verbal is harder to prove, so whether the point is worth litigating is another topic entirely. This is likely to depend on the local legal framework. Which will affect the incidence of withdrawn offers.
    – MvZ
    Jan 10, 2022 at 10:03
  • @MvZ My answer is about academic customs, not law. Legally, a verbal contract is binding in most cases, but that's not relevant because academia does not do that. Jan 10, 2022 at 15:44
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    In your answers, you sometimes make sweeping generalizations that may not apply to the complex variety of the academic world. For instance, for this one, I don't have a contract signed by myself, but this notwithstanding I have had a permanent position for 22 years now, receiving regular salary. How is this possible? Because I've been hired by a so called rectoral decree which does not require the signature of a contract. This has somehow the unpleasant consequence that when I have to hire an apartment, if I have to go abroad for long periods, I don't have anything to show that I have a job! Jan 10, 2022 at 16:11
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    @AnonymousPhysicist What I'm suggesting is that you simply modify your answer to sound less as "it's like this and it's universally set in stone". Adding the corner of the world of your experience, or using adverbs like frequently, typically, in many cases etc. would help a lot smoothing certain claims. Jan 10, 2022 at 16:17
  • 2
    @MassimoOrtolano To some extent, this is also true as a civil servant in Germany (i.e. professors in most German states): As a civil servant, you get appointed, rather than signing a contract. Nevertheless, you do get an appointment certificate, which you can show whenever you would show your contract otherwise.
    – user151413
    Jan 11, 2022 at 22:40

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