Novak received a Ph.D. in mining engineering and a minor in electrical engineering from The Pennsylvania State University in 1984. He taught at the University of Alabama for 18 years before becoming C.T. Holland Professor and Head of the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. While at Virginia Tech, Novak was part of the investigation team for the Sago Mine Disaster. He then accepted a position as division director for mining science and technology in the Office of Mine Safety and Health Research with the National Institute for Occupation and Health (NIOSH), a position he held until he arrived at UK.
His research focused on underground mine ventilation, electrical mining equipment and underground mine safety.