The publication question comes up all the time when talking about grad school applications. It’s something that many applicants spent a lot of time worrying about. So, do you need to have publications on your CV when applying for PhD programs?
The short answer is no. Publications are not required to apply for a PhD. The longer answer is that the admissions committee wants to see that you have the potential to become an excellent researcher. While publications are one indication of this, they are not the only way to show that you have strong research skills. Presenting at undergraduate conferences, volunteering in a lab, winning research awards, or doing an industry internship also show your research aptitude. Additionally, your letters of recommendation can speak to your potential for research excellence or indicate if the research you’re involved in may lead to a publication eventually. If you are involved in research as an undergraduate or Master’s student that leads to a publication, think of it as a nice bonus rather than a need-to-have.
Having a publication on your CV (even if it’s in a different field) can help your application stand out when applying to a competitive program or make up for a weakness elsewhere in your application. You may notice that some current students in the program published during undergrad, but again, this doesn't make it an application requirement.
Keep in mind that every field has its own publishing expectations. In the humanities, for example, publications are very rare even at the PhD level and many graduate from top PhD programs without publishing. Engineering is another field that has lower PhD publishing expectations that high output fields like biology. Some fields also have longer experiment times, so it’s understood that, while you may be doing high quality work, it will take longer for your findings to be published.
Rather than worry about publications, focus instead on gaining solid research experience. Ask to volunteer in a lab. Find a job as a research assistant. Present at an undergraduate conference. Submit a paper to an undergraduate journal. These are equally valuable ways to build up the kind of research experience that makes you a promising applicant.